West Virginia tops No. 1-seed Kentucky, advances to Final Four

first_img Comments West Virginia guard Joe Mazzulla walked into Bob Huggins’ office in the winter of 2009 with tears welling in his eyes. Mazzulla could barely lift his left arm, still trying to recover from a devastating shoulder injury that threatened to cost him his career.Mazzulla asked his coach a difficult question and expected an honest answer: ‘What am I going to do if I can’t play?’ Huggins recalled him saying.  The truth was that the odds were stacked against him. No basketball player had ever returned from this particular surgery to repair a fractured growth plate, Huggins said. To lighten the mood on that winter day, he fed Mazzulla a joke about potentially playing soccer instead of basketball. ‘You don’t need your hands for that,’ Mazzulla said.Mazzulla recounted that story in the locker room Saturday night with a grin on his face. He had just walked off the Carrier Dome court a hero, scoring a career-high 17 points to propel the second-seeded Mountaineers to a 73-66 victory against No. 1 seed Kentucky in the Elite Eight.  AdvertisementThis is placeholder textBehind Mazzulla’s play and a team-high 18 points from Da’Sean Butler, WVU (31-6) is off to its first Final Four since 1959, marking Huggins’ first trip to the national semifinals since taking Cincinnati in 1992. The win also served as validation for Mazzulla, who spent more than a year rehabbing the injury that once seemed hopeless and battling through depression and legal trouble.When the final buzzer sounded, Mazzulla rushed to find Huggins and wrapped him in a giant bear hug. This was the moment he had been waiting for.‘I never want him to forget how much appreciation and how much I recognize what he has done for me on and off the court,’ said Mazzulla, who was temporarily suspended from the program after being arrested last April on charges of domestic battery in a bar in Morgantown, W.Va. ‘I always have to be the first one to say ‘thank you’ and ‘I love you’ to him.’Mazzulla started Saturday’s game at point guard, in place of injured starter Darryl ‘Truck’ Bryant, who broke a bone in his foot in practice this week. In the days leading up to the East Regional, Mazzulla heard constantly that West Virginia would struggle because they lacked strong point guard play. After all, the Mountaineers’ only healthy point guard, Mazzulla, averaged just 2.2 points in 35 games off the bench this season.‘I was real concerned, I’m not going to lie,’ Bryant said. ‘I know Joe can handle the job, but that’s such a tough situation without your starting point guard. I honestly never could have expected this.’Mazzulla did more than just handle the job. His performance earned him East Regional MVP honors. He had gone up against heralded point guard John Wall (19 points, nine rebounds) — likely the No. 1 overall pick in the upcoming NBA Draft — and matched him step for step.‘We couldn’t have won this game without him,’ Bryant said.WVU managed to handle the Wildcats (35-3) and their slew of potential NBA first-round draft picks with a swarming 1-3-1 defense. The 6-foot-2 Mazzulla played most of the game at the bottom of the zone, trying to contain the 6-foot-11 Kentucky center DeMarcus Cousins. Mazzulla’s quick hands and pesky play frustrated him throughout the night.Cousins finished with 15 points, but he was unable to establish himself down the stretch. ‘At one point during the game he looked at me and said, ‘Are you serious?” Mazzulla said. ‘I said, ‘Yeah, I’m serious. You’re going to have to punch me in the face to get me off you.”The Mountaineers caught fire in the second half, shooting 57.1 percent from the field in the game’s final 20 minutes. Mazzulla found ways to penetrate the Kentucky defense and slash to the basket for layups, helping his team go up by 16 points with 4:25 remaining.  But Mazzulla fouled out of the game with 2:22 left, and the Wildcats made one last run. West Virginia missed a bevy of free throws, and Kentucky managed to cut the deficit to as little as four. With Mazzulla pounding on the floor and screaming encouragements from the bench, the Mountaineers barely held on.Afterward, Mazzulla sat by his locker, overwhelmed with excitement. He wore the net from the basket like a necklace.He had been the first one to start cutting it down.‘I said our motto — an opportunity for kids to fulfill their dreams,’ Mazzulla said. ‘We’ve done one of them, and we have two more games to fulfill our highest dream.’[email protected] Published on March 27, 2010 at 12:00 pmcenter_img Facebook Twitter Google+last_img

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