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COLLEGE BASKETBALL / NCAA TOURNAMENT | On Golden Pond
/ WEST VIRGINIA

Tough in the Clutch

Underdog Mountaineers, sparked by the shooting of a guy named West, are primed for their next big challenge.

March 19, 1998|MIKE PENNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

His team a decided underdog for the third time in three NCAA tournament games, West Virginia Coach Gale Catlett had a proposition for Utah's Rick Majerus on the eve of today's West Regional semifinal encounter at the Pond.

"I wish that Rick and I could tee it up at 4:15 at midcourt and play one-on-one--whoever wins advances," Catlett suggested Wednesday.

"Because I would whip his butt. I wasn't a very good player, but I can whip him."

About an hour later, Majerus, the Akebono of college basketball coaches, was apprised of Catlett's immodest proposal.

Momentarily at least, Majerus was flabbergasted.

"He was a player of some repute, wasn't he?" Majerus asked.

(Some. Catlett played on two NCAA teams at West Virginia in the early 1960s.)

"I was a walk-on," Majerus said. "They used to call me Rick the Pick. Now, if we can play two-on-two . . . I'd kick his [butt]. I could free up anyone in America."

Majerus shook his head and wondered aloud just what he was doing, talking about posting up a bespectacled 57-year-old man when his team was hours away from trying to reach the Elite Eight.

"What precipitated that?" Majerus asked.

The coach was told Catlett brought up the subject without prompting.

"Oh, my God," Majerus said. "He's been in West Virginia for too long."

Yes, the Mountaineers, from the coach on down, are a tad excitable at this point in their season, which should have been a wrap a week ago.

The Mountaineers (24-8) weren't supposed to beat Temple in the first round, but they did--by 30 points, Temple's worst defeat in the NCAA tournament.

Then the Mountaineers were thrown to Cincinnati, 27-5 and seeded second in the West, and West Virginia prevailed again, on a last-second 22-foot bank shot by a senior point guard poetically named Jarrod West.

Consequently, West Virginia has reached the round of 16 for the first time since Jerry West was sinking clutch 22-footers for the Mountaineers en route to the Final Four in 1959.

How big a deal is this in Morgantown?

Big enough for Catlett to pack his team up in Boise, Idaho, where the Mountaineers had defeated Temple and Cincinnati in the sub-regional, and ship them straight to Anaheim to reduce what he calls "distractions."

Big enough for West--Jarrod, not Jerry--to miss his brother Heath's wedding, unluckily scheduled the same day as West Virginia-Cincinnati. Jarrod had to beg off as best man--"This is the NCAAs, baby," Jarrod explained--and Heath had to hold up the ceremony 15 minutes while the wedding party was huddled around a small portable TV, glued to the game.

"They were all in the back of the church with a little hand-held, traveling TV," West said. "Right when I released the shot, the screen went all snowy. They didn't know who won until the snow cleared up and they saw me being interviewed on the [postgame] show."

It was not the most splendid of game-winning shots--a meat-and-potatoes hard bank off the glass and through the hoop, launched desperately from beyond the top of the key.

"I came off a screen," West said, "and [Cincinnati forward] Ruben Patterson came out to contest it. So I had to shoot high.

"By the grace of God, it fell in."

When it did, West Virginia was left, staggered but still standing, with a 75-74 victory.

Shortly after, West found himself deluged with questions about his famous namesake, the first guard from West Virginia to be tagged with the handle "Mr. Clutch."

Had he ever met Jerry West?

"He talked to our team two years ago at the Big East tournament and I shook his hand."

What did he know about Jerry West?

"I just know he went there. I know he broke a lot of records and scored a lot of points. I know he was a great player and he's a legend in West Virginia. Everything there is named after him."

Had he ever seen Jerry West in action?

"I've seen him play on film. Like I say, he's a great player. To be the [model for] the NBA emblem, you know you have to have done something well."

There is no relation between Jarrod and Jerry West, but there is a familial connection. Jarrod's father, George, was a standout basketball player at Southern University and once attended Laker preseason camp with the other West.

"I was told my father went to camp with him," West said. "Jerry West continued to play, and my father came home."

West said he is "flattered" by all the Jerry-Jarrod byplay, but teammate Marcus Goree says, "I think Jarrod's getting tired of all that talk. Hopefully, the media will move on and find something new."

An upset of Utah today would qualify. Once again, West Virginia finds itself on the short end of the measuring stick--with its press-crazy guards scurrying around the kneecaps of Utah's 6-11 Michael Doleac, this matchup could be subtitled "the Mountaineers against the Mountain."

"He's probably the biggest and best player I've faced all year," West Virginia center Brian Lewin said of Doleac. "He's a future pro. But we have no problem getting physical with people. We've done that all year."

Added Goree: "The bigger they are the harder they fall. That's the way we look at it. We want to run them and run them and keep them running."

And in the meantime, Catlett is welcoming challenges. If not the hulking Majerus in the paint, how about anyone in the room willing to argue the topic of greatest player in the history of basketball?

"In West Virginia, we still think Jerry West is the best player who ever played, by the way," Catlett said. "And we will debate that with you if you've got the time."

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