MOUNTAINEER MADNESS – The ultimate WVU NCAA Tournament run – National Championship Game

Mid-March is annually the Holy days of college basketball. But in 2020, the gyms are silent and the NCAA Tournament will not be played for the first time since its inception in 1939. We will never know what would have been for the 2020 West Virginia Mountaineers in their quest for One Shining Moment. In it’s place, let’s use the Wayback Machine to look back at the best tournament games for the Mountaineers. We are selecting the best WVU game for each round of the tournament – Round of 64, Round of 32, Sweet 16, Elite 8, Final Four and National Championship Game. Each day will feature a new top WVU NCAA Tournament game, culminating with the finals.

Part 6 of 6: National Championship Game

California 71, West Virginia 70; Louisville, Kent.

The 1959 NCAA Tournament National Championship Game was a contrast in styles. It matched the high-octane offensive attack of West Virginia coach Fred Schaus’ Mountaineers and the methodical, deliberate style of California legendary coach Pete Newell’s Bears.

In the end, Newell’s Bears were able to work just enough time off the clock to upset the Mountaineers and Jerry West and deprive West Virginia its first NCAA Tournament title.

The game featured wild swings of momentum. The Mountaineers jumped out early and took a 13-point lead in the first half. California’s Reverse Action offense worked the Bears back into the game and the lead. Cal took a 39-33 lead into the half.

The Bears extended that lead to 15 in the second half, taking advantage of West’s foul trouble. The cause looked hopeless for the Mountaineers. They faced a double-digit deficit, and their star was struggling to stay on the floor.

But the 1959 Mountaineers were nothing if not resilient. As it had all season, West Virginia’s offensive firepower propelled WVU back into the game. Despite his foul problems – West played the last 15 minutes of the game saddled with four personal fouls – the junior led the way as he had all tournament and all season.

With less than a minute left WVU cut the Bears lead to one, 69-68. But Cal’s Darrell Imhoff scored on a tip-in with 17 seconds left to extend the lead to 71-68. There was no 3-point shot at the time so West Virginia was down two scores.

WVU pushed the tempo and Ronnie Retton – now better known as Olympic Gold Medal winning gymnast Mary Lou Retton’s father – fed a perfect pass under the hoop to Willie Akers who put in the easy basket to pull WVU back within one, 71-70.

West Virginia put Cal on the free-throw line and West grabbed the rebound off a miss. But with just two seconds left he was unable to get off a shot and the Mountaineers chance at national championship glory fell a single point short.

As he had all tournament, West finished with game highs in points (28) and rebounds (11). Akers and Bob Clousson added 10 points each in the loss.

Cal’s Denny Fitzpatrick led the Bears with 20 points.

Despite the defeat, West was named Most Outstanding Player for the tournament. West was amazing in the 1959 tournament, averaging 32.4 points and 14 rebounds in the Mountaineers five tournament games.

It would be a bittersweet honor he would replicate in the NBA. West won the 1969 NBA Finals MVP despite his LA Lakers losing to the Boston Celtics in seven games.

West is the only player from a losing to team to win NBA Finals MVP honors.

West and Newell would join forces to earn Gold Medals on the 1960 USA Olympic Basketball team when the former was a star player and the latter the team’s coach. West and Cincinnati’s Oscar Robertson co-captained the 1960 team that is generally considered the best amateur basketball team in history.