MORGANTOWN - At 2:24 p.m. Tuesday, WVU guard Terry Henderson stood in an empty Coliseum working on free throws with a friend or team manager.
It was a good sign for the Mountaineer faithful. At the end of the 2011-12 season, Gonzaga, the visitors later Tuesday evening, chopped up WVU 77-54 in the NCAA tournament in Pittsburgh. At the beginning of last season, the Zags put an even worse beating on the Mountaineers by 85-50 in Spokane, Wash.
I remember both vividly. Was at both. So I had to see the final chapter. Would WVU finally get over the hump this season after close losses to Virginia Tech, Wisconsin and, in the end, Missouri? Or would it be Beatdown, Part III? (Add a Roman numeral or two if we're talking solely about West Virginia coach Bob Huggins. When Huggins was coaching Cincinnati, his Bearcats were playing Gonzaga in an NCAA tournament game. Both Huggins and Bearcats radio announcer Chuck Machock were tossed out by official Mike Kitts.)
It seemed something was different Tuesday. There was Henderson, working on his game early in the day, starting. There was former Mountaineer coach Gale Catlett, who seemingly has been missing in action since resigning in 2001, sitting to the left of press row. (He was there to help the school honor ex-WVU standout Dale Blaney.) There was Da'Sean Butler. And even an actual, decent, if not spectacular, crowd showed. The attendance: 9,350.
In the end, though, the only thing that was different was the margin of Gonzaga's victory. It was not 23. It was not 35. It was four, 80-76.
WVU has now lost 14 straight and 18 of 21 to Top 25 teams. The last Mountaineer victory over a Top 25 team was Jan. 7, 2012 at home against Georgetown.
Yes, another one.
I swear, though, in the first half, we saw something different. Gonzaga, as always, looked poised, but missed uncharacteristically, to the tune of 38.2 percent shooting (30 percent from 3-point range). The Mountaineers had some spark, especially Eron Harris, who had 18 FIRST-HALF points. The hosts had but one turnover.
Huggins even seemed to be combating Gonzaga coach Mark Few with a player who would fit nicely in Spokane: Nathan Adrian. The Morgantown High product gave WVU a different look by trapping a Zag in the corner, blocking a shot and hitting a trey from the perimeter.
In the second half, Henderson, who seems to have his hops back, jammed on a follow of a Devin Williams airball. Juwan Staten got the roll on a drive.
Four WVU guards and Remi Dibo? No problem. The Mountaineers were up by 10 at the 16:08 mark.
Then we saw the familiar sight. Piece by piece, step by step, West Virginia began to crumble. On this night, Gary Browne was the inverted spark with a dribble into the arms of David Stockton. He missed shots. He was called for blocking.
Then Kevin Pangos took over. One trey. Then another. Then another. Soon, at 2:25 left, Gonzaga was up by 8. A WVU rally fell short.