West-led WVU still pinching itself in 16 Star-struck Mountaineers figure to press Utah hard

West Regional

March 19, 1998|By NEW YORK DAILY NEWS

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Valparaiso might have earned the official designation as this country's Cinderella team in the NCAA tournament.

But the West Virginia Mountaineers can lay claim to the title, too -- and they even got a chance to meet the fairy-tale character in person earlier this week when they took a guided tour of Disneyland.

No one thought West Virginia would be here for the NCAA West Regional tonight. But after upsets of Temple and second-seeded Cincinnati, West Virginia (24-8) is ready to take the court against Western Athletic Conference power Utah (27-3) in an 8 p.m., Sweet 16 game at the Pond.

By then, the euphoria of actually being in sunny, 75-degree Southern California should have worn off, even if the thrill of still being in the tournament hasn't.

"I've never been to California before, and I think this is the first trip for most of us," said Mountaineers senior guard Jarrod West, who is from Natchez, Miss. "Disneyland was a great experience. You see it all the time on TV, but you never think you're going to be there yourself."

West -- who was supposed to be the best man at the wedding of his brother, Heath, in Natchez last Saturday -- guaranteed the trip when he made a 22-foot, three-point bank shot from the top of the arc with just 0.8 seconds left to give the Mountaineers a dramatic, 75-74 victory over Cincinnati in the second round.

West immediately gained some of the same last-name recognition previously accorded Hall of Famer and state legend Jerry West, a two-time All-American at West Virginia who led the Mountaineers to the 1959 NCAA title game against California.

Jarrod West was besieged by people at the theme park, wanting to know if he was the player who hit "the shot."

"Sometimes, guys call me Jerry when we're just playing," Jarrod said. "But I know I can't compare to him."

The Lakers legend spoke to the team two years ago before the Big East tournament. "I got to shake hands with him," Jarrod said. "I'd love to talk to him."

Jarrod's father, George, a star at Southern University, got that chance when he played against West at a Lakers tryout camp. "My dad came home and he [Jerry West] continued playing," Jarrod said.

The 5-11 West is one of six seniors on this 10th-seeded Big East upstart, which has built its reputation around full-court zone pressure and ability to hit the boards.

The Mountaineers forced Cincinnati into 22 turnovers, and Bearcats starting point guard Michael Horton into eight.

Handling pressure will be Utah's biggest challenge. The Utes, beautifully coached in the half court by Rick Majerus, have the second-best guard in the West in senior Andre Miller, who scored 28 points in a 75-69 victory over Arkansas, which had been notorious for its "40 minutes of hell," full-court pressure.

Utah prefers patience. West Virginia prefers to play in the 80s.

"If we get our press going, we're dangerous," West Virginia coach Gale Catlett said.

"UConn came into our place, claiming nobody could press them. gave them their third-worst loss in Big East history."

"This year's team and last year's are dramatically different," said Majerus. "We lost our three best athletes.

"If this becomes a dunkarama," he said, his voice trailing off. "If I had my druthers, I'd rather have last year's team back, and I don't mean that disparagingly."

Majerus said this year's squad has done a terrific job on defense and on the boards.

"They are committed to defending and helping each other," he said.

The experience of facing pressing teams in San Francisco and Arkansas should help Utah tonight. And the presence of point guard Andre Miller won't hurt, either.

"He's good enough to demand two guys running at him and creating 4-on-3s," teammate Drew Hansen said.

Pub Date: 3/19/98

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