Aside from minor league baseball teams in Princeton, Bluefield, Charleston and Morgantown, professional sports have little influence in West Virginia.
That's why college athletics mean so much to fans around the state, as well as the players who lead programs to their peaks.
That was on display Thursday night at the Beckley-Raleigh County Convention Center as the “Best Virginia” team — a squad composed of West Virginia University alumni that will compete in the upcoming “The Basketball Tournament” — defeated the Southern West Virginia Elite 118-80 in a scrimmage game.
Best Virginia, a team composed of notable alums such as John Flowers, Kevin Jones, Da’Sean Butler, Juwan Staten, Truck Bryant and Jaysean Paige proved its talent early, scoring the first six points and never looking back. Though the competition wasn’t necessarily the reason for the game.
It was to serve as a tuneup before The Basketball Tournament begins, a 64-team tournament that yields a $2 million prize to the winning team.
Though the Elite were looking for an upset win, they enjoyed the experience too, with many of them growing up watching this group of players usher in one of the best era’s in WVU history.
Wyoming East and Concord graduate Taylor Smith, who grew up a WVU fan, led the Elite with 19 points, knocking down multiple 3-pointers while holding his own in the post against the much bigger Best Virginia team.
“I never thought I’d play against them,” Smith said. “It’s kind of an honor really. All those guys played when I was in high school and middle school so I grew up watching them. I don’t think they know how much they mean to West Virginia. We don’t have any pro teams, so we put all of our energy into them. It’s an honor.
“I’d rather have zero points and a win, but they kind of took it easy on me. Their guards were pressuring so much and the bigs would help so it gave me some openings. Thats the reason I got my points. I had maybe three iso moves, the rest was pick and pop. I had an easy day compared to the guards. It’s Press Virginia indeed.”
As an exhibition, fans from southern West Virginia had the opportunity to watch some of their favorite alums in action, and they weren’t disappointed.
Flowers, the General Manager and a forward for the team, as well as a player on the 2010 Final Four team, was very pleased with the turnout.
“Herbie Brooks did a great job helping bring this here,” Flowers said. “He’s the point man out here. My hat goes off to him for getting this all set up here.
“We have the best fans in the world. I expect nothing less. They always supported us when I was there and before I was there and they support us after.”
Brooks, a Mullens native and WVU alum jumped at the opportunity to help bring the game to Beckley so that southern West Virginia could enjoy it.
“It all starts with John,” Brooks said. “When he wants to do something this way or when I want to, we keep in touch and get it done. When they said they got into the TBT tournament and wanted to have an exhibition in Beckley, I told him I’d help out anyway I could. I think it was a great turnout. John’s a West Virginian if you ask me. He loves this state. When he comes back home from overseas where he plays, he stays in Morgantown. He understands the people in this part of the state don’t get to see them as much, so I helped him out as much as I could.
“It’s wonderful. We went through this a little bit with the actual alumni game in Fairmont not long ago. I guarantee they weren’t expecting to see the crowd they saw today. So thank you, Beckley, Mullens and all of southern West Virginia for coming out and supporting these guys.”
Elite head coach Mike Fowlkes echoed Smith’s sentiments about facing the alum.
“It’s a great experience,” Fowlkes said. “You see a lot of different things. From the 1-3-1 that (John) Beilien ran, to the Final Four team to the press they run now. You don’t get to be apart of something like this everyday and I’m glad we had the turnout we did. You get to see a lot of stuff with something like this.”
The support Best Virginia has received has been so overwhelming that the team’s assistant coach, Billy Hahn, announced during halftime that West Virginia will host a regional tournament for the TBT next year.
“The people that run the tournament called me a couple weeks ago about it,” Hahn said. “They told me ‘Coach Hahn, we can’t believe how much support your team has received. We had a meeting this morning and my staff wanted me to call you and tell you Morgantown will be a regional site for the tournament next year.’ Because of your support, we get to host the regional next year.”
Best Virginia will return to action Saturday as it plays one more exhibition at Hedgesville High School on Saturday. It will play its first game the TBT in Richmond on July 26.
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