Pitt, No. 17 West Virginia renew Backyard Brawl
PITTSBURGH (AP) The ”Backyard Brawl” memories are well worn and familiar to Bob Huggins. They stretch back decades, the highs and the lows of West Virginia’s longtime rivalry with Pittsburgh coming back to him in a rush.
How could he not want his players to be a part of it?
”My memory of most of them are on their side rather than ours,” said Huggins, who played at West Virginia in the mid-1970s before returning as head coach of his alma mater in 2007. ”They’ll understand. If they don’t understand by the time they walk in the arena, they’ll understand.”
The 185th meeting of a rivalry that dates back over a century returns on Saturday night when the 18th-ranked Mountaineers (8-1) visit the rebuilding Panthers (5-4). They last met in 2012, each school’s final year in the Big East before bolting to new conferences. With both programs now settled in their new homes – West Virginia in the Big 12 and Pitt in the Atlantic Coast Conference – Pitt approached West Virginia in the spring of 2016 and asked about getting back together.
Negotiations didn’t take long.
”There were a lot of people that said are we ever going to get back to the Backyard Brawl?” said Pitt coach Kevin Stallings. ”It literally was the easiest scheduling. We called them and said `You guys want to play?’ and they said `Yes.”’
Imbuing the importance to two rosters that have never faced each other is another matter. Yet given the proximity of the schools and their lengthy athletic relationship, Huggins and Stallings are hardly concerned about their teams playing with the edge that has long defined a series that began in 1906. The Panthers hold a 96-88 all-time lead, though West Virginia is 7-4 against Pitt since Huggins took over.
”When the word Pitt comes out of anywhere, you know what happens,” Huggins said. ”And they’re not immune to hearing that, obviously.”
The Mountaineers head in with serious momentum, having won eight straight games since an opening loss to Texas A&M, including a 68-61 victory over 15th-ranked Virginia on Tuesday. Stallings has spent a considerable portion of practice trying to get his team that features 11 new faces ready for West Virginia’s relentless press, often putting seven or eight defensive players on the floor at a time and daring the offense to execute.
”It’s really been a learning experience when we first started it,” Pitt junior guard Jared Wilson-Frame said. ”It’s something (now) we’re able to handle with normality.”
At least in theory. Breaking pressure for a brief stretches is one thing. Doing it over the course of 40 minutes is another matter entirely.
”You can be prepared for it but I think at times there’s a cumulative effect to it and that’s the thing you probably can’t really prepare for,” Stallings said.
The game will be the first real chance for Pitt’s completely retooled roster to play in front of a legitimately buzzing home crowd. The once-intimidating Petersen Events Center has been decidedly more welcoming during the bumpy retooling Stallings is overseeing. Stallings chuckled when asked if his team will have to adjust to a raucous atmosphere on its own floor.
If anything it’s what the Panthers want.
”If you’re not up for Saturday’s game,” Pitt senior forward Ryan Luther said, ”I don’t know what you can get up for.”
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