RaeQuan Battle and his West Virginia teammates celebrated on the court amidst a swarm of students as John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” blared over the WVU Coliseum sound system.
Battle’s 23 points and nine rebounds led West Virginia to a stunning 91-85 upset win over No. 3 Kansas Saturday.
“Surreal moment, man,” he said after the game. “Doesn’t happen to very many people, especially in the college world. It’s hard to win games like that.”
Just two months ago, Battle wondered if NCAA rules would prevent him from having that kind of special moment this season.
Battle is the first person from the Tulalip Reservation in Washington state to play Division I basketball. He played his first two college seasons at Washington but struggled to focus as issues at home affected him, so he transferred to Montana State. He had two strong seasons there before his coach, Danny Sprinkle, left to become head coach at Utah State.
An athlete usually can transfer without penalty after a coaching change, but if there has been at least one previous Division I transfer, he or she must sit out a year at the new home.
Battle knew the rules, but felt he needed basketball as part of a comprehensive process to improve his mental health. He said he has lost “countless people” to drugs, alcohol and COVID-19 over the years. He fought through the pressure of being a local player representing his tribe at Washington, then lost Sprinkle at Montana State — someone he saw as a “personal therapist.”
He felt West Virginia had the proper support system to help him flourish personally and academically. Interim West Virginia coach Josh Eilert lived on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota for two years as a child, so Battle felt a connection.
Battle transferred with hopes that the NCAA would understand his plight, but his appeals were denied twice.
Last month, a federal judge in West Virginia issued a temporary restraining order against the NCAA, giving multiple-transfer athletes a 14-day window to compete. The judge later extended the order through the spring season, meaning Battle could play the rest of the season.
“I feel like it was all meant to be, especially me coming here,” Battle said. “People ask if I regret coming here. I know I never thought of regret. But, you know, there’s a lot of stuff that came with it. A lot of good things, a lot of bad things. But, you know. God’s plan.”
The ruling also helped players such as his teammate, Noah Farrakhan, UT-Arlington guard Phillip Russell, Utah guard Deivon Smith, Cincinnati forward Jamille Reynolds and BYU freshman forward Marcus Adams.
Battle spoke before the judge and called it one of the most uncomfortable experiences of his life.
“I was sweating,” he said. “I don’t sweat from my armpits like that, but I was sweating a lot. And then after, I was feeling uneasy and that day after the trial was when I threw up. I feel like that was a lot of stress and anxiety just releasing itself from my body.”
The pressure was so intense that he missed the first game he was eligible to play due to an illness he believes was brought on by stress. After four days of being sick and losing 10 pounds, it was time to deliver.
“I took the NCAA on head on, pretty much,” he said. “I went to court against the NCAA. So now whoever was paying attention to my case is watching me to see what I do.”
He scored 29 points in a loss to Radford in his first game back, then followed that with 29 in a win over Toledo. He is averaging 17.9 points through nine games.
Eilert sees the difference in Battle’s mental health since the ruling.
“It’s meant the world to him that he can just compete in the game he loves and compete with the lights on, not just in practice,” Eilert said. “Rae needs that. He certainly needs that competitive fire. He needs to fuel that each and every day. And the game of basketball is where he gets his happiness. It’s meant the world to him.”
Russell is one of the more notable players the ruling helped. He sat out the first month of the season after his waiver request that was denied had already taken a big toll on him and his family.
The junior erupted for 28 points in his debut on Dec. 16 against Air Force. He followed that up with 18 points and seven assists against Texas Tech.
After five games, Russell missed the next three with an ankle injury, then returned to score 24 points against UT Rio Grande Valley. Russell, who started his career at Saint Louis and played at Southeast Missouri State the past two seasons, has one more season of eligibility left.
“This opportunity, I’m a step closer to my dream. My dream is to play in the NBA,” he said. “It gave me a chance to prove myself and also to prove the doubters wrong.”
AP Sports Writer John Raby in Morgantown, West Virginia contributed to this report.
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