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Let's Go Brawling

pitt

Written by Jake Stump
Photographed by Raymond Thompson Jr.

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West Virginia has always had a complicated relationship with Pittsburgh. In a state without a single major pro sports team, West Virginians lean toward the Steelers, Penguins and Pirates as their surrogate superheroes. And there’s a fondness for the city itself.


From Morgantown, Pittsburgh is an easy 70-mile hop over the Mason-Dixon Line where a quick, refreshing getaway awaits.

But, for the hardcore Mountaineer fan, there’s a downside to the city. It is home to Pitt, as in the University of Pittsburgh Panthers, the most hated rival of West Virginia University.

On Saturday (Dec. 9), the familiar foes reunited and it felt so good, at least for one team. It had been nearly six years since the last men’s basketball “Backyard Brawl,” a catchy, gimmicky name for the WVU-Pitt rivalry that sounds more like a no-holds-barred wrestling match. (According to John Antonik in this comprehensive look back at the rivalry, the “Backyard Brawl” was coined by a Pittsburgh Press sports writer in the 1970s.) 

On the basketball court, WVU and Pitt have clashed 185 times in 106 years. Their last meeting came Feb. 16, 2012, when the Mountaineers topped the Panthers 66-48. But then things changed. The local rivals, both members of the Big East, usually played one another twice a year. But then it all changed when the original Big East slowly dissolved. WVU joined the Big 12 and Pitt joined the Atlantic Coast Conference. 

Bye bye regional conference rival. That is until Saturday night at the Petersen Events Center in a mostly convincing 69-60 WVU win, keeping the all-time series in the Mountaineers’ favor at 97-88. And it continues in 2018, when Pitt will travel to Morgantown for battle. 

For some fans, those complicated feelings about Pittsburgh emerged once again, yet, for the most part, their aversion to the Pitt Panther and its inferior shade of gold-and-blue has always remained simmering. 

Pitt Game Father and Son
Greg Boniti and son, Evan, await the WVU-Pitt tipoff in opposing attire.
How to Kill a Parent 

Seeking an effective method to rattling your WVU-loving mom or dad? 

Like Pitt. 

About an hour before tipoff, Greg Boniti was sitting civilly in the stands next to his son Evan, 16. The elder Boniti proudly wore a WVU jacket. Meanwhile, Evan sported a white T-shirt that read “Pitt Basketball.” 

“He’s killing his father,” Greg said. 

After all, dad earned two degrees from WVU – a bachelor’s in petroleum engineering in 1993 and an MBA in 2000. But his Mountaineer loyalty predates his time in college. 

“It started for me growing up and going to games at Old Mountaineer Field,” he said. 

The Bonitis live in Weirton, a bedroom community of Pittsburgh. As the Northern Panhandle of West Virginia suffered a decline in manufacturing in the 1900s, particularly Weirton's steel industry, many residents have taken up to commuting 30 minutes to an hour to Pittsburgh for work. Those residents’ relationship with the Steel City may be a bit more complicated than other West Virginians. Their closer proximity and exposure to Pitt has the Boniti son considering Pitt for college over WVU. 

Evan is a fan of Pitt basketball and he and his father have watched high school ballers in the Northern Panhandle-area blossom into key parts of both WVU and Pitt teams. 

If Evan does wind up at Pitt, that’ll make for a lifetime of interesting father-son outings and conversations. 

“Both are fine schools, wherever he chooses to go,” Greg said. “But I’m really glad they brought back the Backyard Brawl. We will never have another rival like Pitt. Not in the Big 12. It’s the location and the history. It’s more than 100 years.”

HugginsKonate
(LEFT) Coach Bob Huggins reacts from the sideline. (RIGHT) Sagaba Konate shoots over a Pitt defender.
What home court advantage? 

To the unbiased observer, the crowd atmosphere at Petersen Events Center may have seemed like a bizarro world. 

It’s Pitt’s territory, home to the Pitt Panthers basketball program and nestled in the Oakland neighborhood of the city. 

There were several moments during Saturday’s game when “Let’s Go Mountaineers” and a certain chant that would never be approved for officially licensed WVU merchandise would drown out the arena. 

The crowd breakdown was 50-50, and that’s a conservative estimate. 

Those tuning into the game on ESPN2 probably wondered, “Why are the home fans cheering for the other team?” 

Pitt Two Dudes
The number of WVU fans matched, or even outnumbered, Pitt fans at their home court at Petersen Events Center.
Students like Nick Flannery and Ben Safer helped contribute to that display of Mountaineer power. 

Flannery and Safer made the trip from Morgantown to root on their school. They even made a few stops on the way, including a downtown Pittsburgh bar where they engaged in “Let’s Go” chants with others. 

As they entered the concourse of the Petersen Events Center, they continued their “Let’s Go” chanting, which was met fiercely with a “Mountaineers!” response. 

“We’re big basketball fans, so when we saw the Backyard Brawl was coming back, we jumped on it,” said Flannery, a mechanical engineering student who wore a #BeatPitt shirt. 

Flannery is not even from West Virginia. 

He’s from New Castle, Pa., about an hour north of Pittsburgh. Yet his allegiances are in line with WVU, his father’s alma mater. Flannery catches some flak from hometown friends, but he’s keen to dish it back. 

His friend, Safer, a mining engineering student, has an inherent reason to vilify Pitt. He’s from Cleveland. 

“It’s a carryover feeling from the Browns-Steelers rivalry,” he said. “I already hate Pittsburgh.”

Female fanWhat's that call?
Fans display their passion throughout the game at Petersen Events Center.
Friends and Foes 

With a comfortable 18-point halftime lead, WVU fans had every reason to taunt their Pitt counterparts. 

“Do you guys really want to start playing us again?” Chucky Whitefield said to his friend and fellow Pittsburgh resident Shawn Tillis. 

Their presence was yet another rare yin and yang combo at the arena. Whitefield had a Backyard Brawl T-shirt on (and a Pittsburgh Penguins cap) while Tillis showed his Panther pride in a blue hoodie. 

“There's still a lot of game left, man,” Tillis shot back at Whitefield.

He was right. 

Pitt courtside
Forward Maciej Bender takes it to the bucket against Pitt.
The Panthers trimmed the lead to make it a one possession game midway through the second half, but the Mountaineers held on. 

Despite the outcome, Whitefield and Tillis will remain friends, and they’re both happy to see the return of the Backyard Brawl, just so they can hate on each other. 

“It’s like how every superhero needs a villain,” Tillis said. “Rivalry is healthy. At the end of the day, it’s just a game, but we can all have fun with it and look forward to the next fight.”

Pitt high fives
Forward Wesley Harris slaps hands with a fan at Saturday's game.