Throwback Thursday: Joe Herber Helps Kickoff the John Beilein Era
The date is December 3, 2002. The location is the Charleston Civic Center, a site that has hosted the West Virginia men’s basketball team 88 times since 1958. The Mountaineers travel down I-79 to the state’s capital to take on the eighth ranked Florida Gators, coached by former Marshall head man Billy Donovan. On the other side, John Beilein is looking to spark his first season in gold and blue with a big upset win.
West Virginia enters with a 2-1 record, falling on the road to Duquesne and looking none too impressive in a three point home win against James Madison. Sophomore guard Drew Schifino is leading the way offensively while three freshman have cracked the starting lineup in Johannes Herber, J.D. Collins, and Kevin Pittsnogle.
For the Gators, much of the load is actually shouldered by a West Virginia native, Brett Nelson, a graduate of St. Albans High School and one of the greatest shooters ever in Gainesville. He’s joined by a pair of professional quality forwards, stretch big Matt Bonner and low post bully David Lee. This versatile trio allows Florida to play multiple styles and keep opponents on their toes.
A tightly contested first half was defined by sloppy play by both teams with the Gators turning the ball over 11 times in the first 20 minutes while the Mountaineers gave it away eight times in the opening frame. The turnover bug struck both the young and old as Florida’s freshman forward Matt Walsh had the ball taken from him five times while senior point guard Justin Hamilton had 4 giveaways. For the Mountaineers, it was the young Herber who struggled to hold onto the ball, tallying four turnovers of his own on the night.
The battle on the offensive end was back and forth between the youth of Beilein’s Mountaineers and the experience of Donovan’s Gators. It was Schifino leading the West Virginia scoring attack for the fourth time in as many games. On 7/17 shooting, the sophomore poured in 18 points, pulling down five rebounds and dishing out a pair of assists in the process. It wasn’t just Schifino doing the scoring, but also Herber and another sophomore, Tyrone Sally. Each marked 11 points on the board, with the German knocking down a pair of three-pointers.
Florida, meanwhile, took the approach of attacking the youth in West Virginia’s front court. Working the ball into the post and around the perimeter to Lee and Bonner, the two combined for 35 points and ten rebounds. The senior sharpshooter Bonner was able to drill a trio of three-pointers in addition to his work inside. Despite this game being scheduled as a homecoming for him, it was not the night for Brett Nelson. The senior struggled from the floor, going 3/13 overall and just 3/10 from beyond the three-point line, well off his nearly 40% career three-point rate.
Five minutes into the contest, the Gators seized control and did not let up for most of the game. Florida put together a double-digit lead in the first half but the Mountaineers stormed back to close the gap. However, West Virginia could not quite finish the job in the opening frame as it entered halftime trailing by a single point, 30-29.
As the second half began, Donovan’s team came out looking to extend the lead and put the game away. With an eight to nothing run starting the final 20 minutes, it looked like the Gators had a chance to do just that. However, the Mountaineers would not go away. The lead never reached double digits again as West Virginia battled back to keep the game close. Florida would not relinquish the lead with the bruising presence of Lee inside, combined with the Swiss Army knife attack of Bonner, pacing a powerful offensive attack.
The Gators held onto that lead all the way until the final minutes of the game. That’s when Herber came in clutch. Suffering a cut to his shooting hand earlier in the contest, he was just one of 10 from three range on the season and needed something to break out of the shooting slump. With the game on the line, he would knock down a shot that did just that. Trailing 64-63 with less than a minute left, Beilein drew up a play to get the ball to Schifino coming off of a screen. Rather than dish it to his cutting teammate, Herber hoisted a three-pointer of his own that tickled the twine, giving West Virginia its first lead in over 35 minutes.
A miss by Walsh fell into the hands of Schifino who was fouled and made one of his free throws to extend the lead, 67-64. A post bucket for Bonner narrowed the lead to one and another foul put Collins on the line with a chance to ice the game. He made just one shot but the defense came up strong in the clutch. The senior Nelson was called upon to take the final shot but his first attempt was blocked by Schifino and his second effort came up off the mark at the buzzer.
Just three games into the John Beilein era, he had already had a marquee win. Against a Florida team that would finish the season in the AP top ten, the Mountaineers never gave up and outplayed one of the best teams in the country. With this win, the potential of John Beilein’s program was clear and the future became bright for the West Virginia Mountaineers.