MORGANTOWN - As the No. 8 Kansas Jayhawks entered Morgantown on Saturday, the West Virginia basketball team needed three secondary guys to step up if the Mountaineers had any hope of pulling off an upset.
Freshman big man Devin Williams did his part. Making his his 30th start of the year, the 6-foot-9 forward from Cincinnati scored 22 points, netting all of his first half attempts.
Williams also grabbed 13 of the team's 37 rebounds, with six coming on the offensive end.
Another key contributor was WVU student Michael Garcia. The political science major from Fairmont was named the school's 63rd Mountaineer mascot towards the end of the game.
Garcia, whose beard is nowhere near as epic as Jonathon Kimble's facial hair, seems to share the same passion as the mascot that preceded him. Garcia led a "Let's Go Mountaineers" chant on the court which helped spark energy into the soldout crowd at the Coliseum and fuel the Mountaineers to an eventual 92-86 win over the Jayhawks.
Finally, I helped give a victorious lift. That's right, me. Attending my first West Virginia game of the 2013-14 season, I aided with vocal contributions from Section 68, Row M, Seat 2.
Better late than never, right? For the last home game of the year, my alma mater and I worked hand-in-hand to impress a nationwide television audience and prove that this year's squad isn't going down without a fight.
OK, maybe most of the credit goes to this young WVU team.
The Mountaineers lost seven players from the 2012-13 unit that went 13-19. That doesn't even include graduated seniors Dominique Rutledge and Deniz Kilicli. Half of the team transferred or was relieved of their duties with the Mountaineers (i.e. Aaric Murray, a headcase who was suspended to start the season after coming to WVU from La Salle - where he was kicked off the team).
Head coach Bob Huggins was basically faced with the task of rebuilding a team without much substance.
Quickly, though, Eron Harris and Juwan Staten became two of the most exciting guards in the Big 12. Their play controlled the upset-charge on Saturday.
Harris led with a team-high 28 points, with five 3-pointers, and Staten - a legitimate conference player of the year candidate - poured in 24.
"I'm going to watch this game 50 times, Harris told reporters postgame. "I want to see exactly what we did."
It was a game that none of the 14,038 in attendance, which included a good chunk of red-and-blue clad Jayhawks fans, will soon forget.
The win doesn't allow a mediocre season to be sugar-coated; it won't be one of the best in recent memory. Barring some magical run in the Big 12 tournament to capture the conference crown, the Mountaineers won't be dancing.
But Saturday showed that WVU can hang with the big boys.
Second all-time in total wins, behind Kentucky, Kansas has the most winning seasons (96) in NCAA history and most conference titles (57). Names like Wilt Chamberlain, Paul Pierce and Andrew Wiggins (who will make most of the headlines in Sunday's papers and highlights on SportsCenter throughout the weekend for dropping 41 points against West Virginia) add to the legacy of KU hoops founded by the legendary James Naismith.
Saturday's win, the first against the Jayhawks in only four tries, earned Huggins $25,000 after his contract was restructured in 2012 to add that new stipulation.
Old Big East rivals like Georgetown, Syracuse and especially Pitt, helped legitimize the WVU basketball program among the nation's best. For the past two seasons, the Mountaineers have struggled to find an identity in the Big 12, but Saturday showed that they really do belong and can bring out the best in the team and fans.
It won't be a Backyard Brawl and it won't be a game that Kansas coach Bill Self will circle on his calendar each year, but the KU-WVU game will be something to look forward to again for years to come.
It's not just a chance for the Mountaineers to catch lightning in a bottle. Maybe they got a spark like that on Saturday as the Jayhawks were without starting center Joel Embiid, who sat out due to back spasms.
But West Virginia will continue to improve, with everybody on the roster returning next season, along with the additions of Elijah Macon and Jonathon Holton. The tandem sat out this season for academic and transfer reasons, respectfully.
The Mountaineers will compete next season for the top spot in the conference. As the student section poured onto the floor at the sound of the final buzzer, the looks on player's faces showed their growing confidence.
"Everyone's seen how good we can be," Harris said after the game. "We beat the best team in the conference just now and basically we were blowing them out the whole game.
"That shows right there to the country West Virginia has great potential. We just have to show them how consistent we can be."
They were having fun. They were having fun during a 25-point lead early in the second half and having fun even as the Jayhawks chipped the deficit down to five points in the waning minutes.
I had fun, too.
So did Garcia, who will grow into his role next year (hopefully with a fuller beard). Williams has to improve, as well. He's not as comfortable handling the ball or taking it up inside among two or three defenders in the paint. He's strong, though, and could be the best prototypical post prescene West Virginia has had since D'or Fischer in the 2003-2005 seasons.
By this time, next year, a win or two against Kansas won't be considered an upset. For the Mountaineers, it could just be business as usual.
(Peaslee, a Youngstown native and WVU grad, is a sports writer for the Herald-Star and The Weirton Daily Times. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter at @thempeas)