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LOCAL HERO

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SHRUGGING OFF PAIN AND HECKLERS, MORGANTOWN PRODUCT NATHAN ADRIAN IS NOW THE HEART OF PRESS VIRGINIA

THEY USED to sit in section 45 in the corner of WVU Coliseum, their three kids clad in blue and yellow, the middle one filled with visions of becoming the next Kevin Pittsnogle or Da'Sean Butler. Now Kevin and Lisa Adrian stood in section 118 of the KeyBank Center in Buffalo, applauding that same boy on this unfamiliar floor, his arms lifted in a triumphant V. For the usually stoic forward Nathan Adrian, his gesture acknowledged not only West Virginia's place in the Sweet 16 after the 83--71 win over Notre Dame but also the pain he'd endured to arrive at that moment. "For him to raise his arms and clap and thank the fans," said Kevin, "he knows there's something special going on."

The Mountaineers are a starless swarm of a team best known for Press Virginia, the country's No. 1 defense in turnover percentage. It is the 6'9" Adrian who spearheads that D, harassing and trapping ballhandlers in the backcourt and often switching on to guards at the other end.

Two years ago Adrian seemed an unlikely candidate for fan appreciation. Any goodwill generated by being the Mountaineers' first Morgantown High grad on scholarship since 1956 had long dried up by his sophomore season, when he shot just 30.7% from the field in 15.4 minutes per game. His right wrist hurt so badly that he could hardly bend his shooting hand back, but he told no one. He smiled through both the pain that caused his poor play and the pain that his poor play caused. Social media critics pilloried him. Friends passed along the invective they'd overheard around town. "He would just brush it off like, 'Eh, oh well,'" says senior guard James Long.

That summer Adrian underwent surgery to remove what turned out to be a cyst in his wrist, and he became a starter the following January. Now Adrian ranks third on West Virginia in points (9.9) and assists (2.9) and first in rebounds (6.0). He is also its unofficial leader in how-did-he-just-do-that? plays. Against the Irish he scooped a loose ball to junior guard Daxter Miles Jr., who hot-potatoed it to Esa Ahmad for a slam.

A short time later Adrian walked off the court. His eyes found his parents in the stands. The school pep band launched into "Take Me Home, Country Roads." West Virginia was moving on, with the homebred Adrian leading the charge. Says Kevin, "I don't know how you could script it any better."