MORGANTOWN - Before West Virginia's basketball game against No. 8 Notre Dame Saturday, the singer of the national anthem pulled a "Christina Aguilera." Like Aguilera in the Super Bowl, she stumbled on the song's words.
It was an awkward moment. But, in a nice turn of events, the crowd lifted her by feeding her the words. The singer recovered and finished beautifully.
WVU coach Bob Huggins is hoping the same will happen with his team, and the previously struggling Mountaineers took a big step by downing the Irish by 72-58 before a healthy crowd.
West Virginia might not be a lock for the NCAA tournament. There are still games remaining at Pitt and Rutgers and home games against Connecticut and Louisville. But if one were to put together a 68-team field today, the Mountaineers would be in at 17-9.
Perhaps more importantly, though, for the first time since the Jan. 16 Purdue game, WVU looked like an NCAA tournament-worthy team. At least in the second half of Saturday's crucial contest.
There was fire. There was passion. There was shot making. There was defense. There was physical play. And, oh yeah, there was Truck.
Truck Bryant, the 6-foot-2 junior guard, played his best game in recent memory - perhaps in his college career. He scored 24 points. He had no turnovers. He fouled out both of Notre Dame's leading scorers, Ben Hansbrough and Tim Abromaitis. He even made a smart foul on a Hansbrough break, denying a basket.
"He's capable of doing that every night," said Bryant's teammate, John Flowers. "He made shots. He played good defense. That's what we need from him."
Indeed, the combination of Joe Mazzulla at point guard and Bryant at shooting guard finally flourished. Mazzulla drove, Bryant shot. WVU downed the lengthy catch-and-shoot Fighting Irish.
It was a very good, albeit necessary win for the Mountaineers. It was necessary because of the NCAA implications. It was very good because Notre Dame is a Top 10 team. The game was nationally televised by CBS. The Irish had just been featured on the front of the USA Today sports section. And it will mean killer points in the Rating Percentage Index. Also, the NCAA selection committee examines how teams fare down the stretch. If you haven't noticed, this is the stretch.
Again, though, what's most important is WVU's look on Saturday. The look that said, "We belong." Maybe it wasn't there in the first half, when WVU's shooting was as cold as one of the arena's Zul's frozen drinks. In the second half, though, the team connected on 53.8 percent of its shots. It converted 70.6 percent of its free throws. And there was passion.
The 12,298 in attendance not only helped the singer, but also the team early in the second half when Bryant caught fire. It was loud. A Jonnie West trey fueled the crowd's fire. And when Huggins received a technical foul from official Tim Higgins, the place went nuts - and the team reacted positively.
"We just knew we had our backs to the wall," said forward Kevin Jones, who had 14 points and 10 rebounds. "We showed we wanted it more and were aggressive."
That, perhaps, was the most impressive part to WVU's win. The Mountaineers were aggressive. And physical.
"We used it from the film," Mazzulla said. "We watched them and not too many people challenged [Notre Dame]. I think we did that."
Cam Thoroughman certainly took the game plan to heart. At one point, he caught Irish guard Eric Atkins with a midcourt screen that floored the freshmen. Then Thoroughman glared down at the player.
"I just love that stuff," Thoroughman said. He added, though, that Huggins told him afterward to cool it with the glaring part.
Huggins was asked about the game's physical nature.