Mountaineers’ Truck breaks down before East Regional

The Syracuse regional has the Big Red, the Big Blue, and now the Big Hurt. West Virginia lost its point guard to a foot injury yesterday; yet as they’ve done all season, keep rolling with the punches.

It’s February 23, 2002 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and the University of Rochester is playing at Carnegie Mellon University in the final regular season game.

The Yellowjackets (21-4) need the victory to assure the at-large bid to the upcoming NCAA Tournament. I was a senior wing on Rochester, and with the game tied at 11-11, point guard Tim Sweeney (now an assistant coach at Elon University) got the outlet pass and passed the ball to me streaking up the sideline.

Turning to catch the ball in front of the CMU bench, I get bumped by the referee running alongside me. One awkward step later the fifth metatarsal on my foot is broken, and I’m sprawled on the Tartan bench. 

My basketball career was over.

Fast-forward eight years later to the bowels of the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, N.Y. Four Division I teams prepare for the upcoming East Regional with a shoot-around and press conferences. The No. 2 seed in this side of the bracket is West Virginia, the Big East tournament champion, and they will face No. 11 seed Washington at 7:27 p.m. on Thursday night.

Top seed Kentucky takes on No. 12 seed, and media darling, Cornell, in the second game of the East Regional, set to tip at 9:57 p.m.

Dressed in practice blues and yellows, six Mountaineers crowded the podium with smiles and jokes Wednesday afternoon, similar to their hotel room entertainment. The jovial mood was striking, given the Tuesday’s announcement that point guard Darryl “Truck” Bryant broke a bone in his foot and is out for the season. The injured bone is that dreaded fifth metatarsal.

My heart sinks as I watch Bryant (pictured right) crutch to the dais. The memories rush back in.

I spent the three weeks after that fall in Pittsburgh, limping a walking boot as we roll to the Division III Final Four in Salem, Virginia. The Rochester media played up the storyline, while I serve as team comedian and pseudo-assistant coach.

On Wednesday it was Bryant, with head phones propped on his head like horns, that soothed everyone’s fears, and kept this dance going.

“When I first saw (Bryant), he was walking with his crutches and you see this big smile,” said West Virginia star Da’Sean Butler. “He kind of put it on the backburner. Granted he is hurt and it sucks, but at the same time, he’s in good spirits about everything and he’s fine.”

Bryant, under the barrage of questions, upheld the sunny disposition: “Of course I want to play. The lights are on. It’s a big time of year. I just wanted to be a part of it. I believe in my team and I know they’ll get it done.”

Head coach Bob Huggins disagreed about the source of his team’s light-hearted approach, and it was a result of “being around my effervescent personality all the time.”

Huggins the comedian will quickly become the decision maker, choosing between going with five forwards or re-inserting Joe Mazzulla as the point guard. (Bryant had replaced Mazzulla in 2008-09 when the latter developed an injury early in the season). “We’re still trying to figure out which is the best direction to go.

The decision needs to be made fast, and could be based on speed. West Virginia’s opponent, No. 11 seed Washington, enter Thursday night’s game averaging nearly 80 points per game with a break-neck offense.

All that doesn’t bother Huggins: “I think playing in our league you play against every style that there is to play against. There’s not a whole lot that people can throw at us that we haven’t seen before. We’ve guarded everything from the Princeton offense to people trying to score 100 points a game. ”

Even if they fall behind the Huskies on Thursday night, the Mountaineers have inspiration seated on the bench in the form of Bryant. His dancing buddy, Butler, put it into words:

“There’s no reason to get uptight and panic and do what everybody wants us to do.”

OK, Da’Sean, I’ll relax.

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