West Virginia now thinking national title after toppling No. 1 Kentucky

Sunday March 28th, 2010

SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Surely the NCAA tournament gods are just screwing with us now. Surely they can't keep dreaming up one illogical scenario after another and expect us to keep buying them.

Two teams met here for an Elite Eight matchup Saturday night. One, top-seeded Kentucky, boasted a likely No. 1 draft pick at point guard. The other, West Virginia, lost its starting point guard to injury just four days earlier.

So of course, it was Mountaineers afterthought Joe Mazzula -- and not Wildcats superstar John Wall -- who went out and scored a career-high 17 points in the 73-66 WVU victory that clinched the East region and Final Four berth.

And of course, Mazzula -- so limited by a shoulder injury that he'd spent most of the season looking to do anything but shoot; who literally couldn't remember when he'd made his last three-pointer until a reporter informed him afterward (it was Nov. 28, 2008) -- had a perfectly logical explanation for his improbable breakout.

"They've got four lottery picks. If John Wall slaps one of my layups off the backboard, it's what he's supposed to do," said the Rhode Island native. "So what have you got to lose?"

He said these words matter-of-factly Saturday night as he sat in front of his locker, a hefty chunk of the Carrier Dome net draped around his neck. On a nearby trainer's table, the NCAA's East Regional champions trophy sat unattended next to a huge bag of Double Bubble and half-opened boxes of postgame sandwiches and apples. Just behind that stood a whiteboard with one number scrawled in black marker: 80 -- as in 80 more minutes for a national championship.

That's how the Mountaineers roll. Beating Kentucky? Earning the school's first Final Four berth since 1959? It's pretty cool, but what, did you expect Bob Huggins to start doing backfips afterward?

"I told these guys they had a chance to do something special," West Virginia's native son told the crowd during the postgame trophy ceremony. "Two more [wins] would be special."

Whether they win two more, one more or none at all, the entire Mountaineer State will remember Saturday's game as special. They'll be recounting Mazzula's improbable night for decades to follow.

Six games into last season, the former starter injured his shoulder so severely it eventually required a growth-plate surgery from which no previous basketball player had ever returned, according to doctors that advised Mazzulla and Huggins. He came back this year, but for much of the season lacked the strength to shoot a 10-foot jumper. There's a reason that prior to Saturday, he'd attempted just six three-pointers all season -- making none.

Yet with 11:23 left in the first half and the Wildcats off to a 13-6 lead, Mazzulla launched one, much to the surprise of even his own teammates. "When he put it up, I figured I better go run to the glass," said guard Da'Sean Butler.

No need. His shot went through -- and it's a good thing it did. West Virginia needed every one of its eight made three-pointers in the first half to take a 28-26 halftime lead because, in one of the stranger statistical oddities you'll ever see, the Mountaineers missed all 16 of their field-goal attempts from inside the three-point line.

Their drought finally ended at the 18:09 mark of the second half when Mazzulla drove hard through the lane for a layup, in what would become a familiar sight by night's end. Nearly all his remaining points came on drives through the paint, either in the form of made layups or free throws.

"We played bad defense," said frustrated Kentucky big man DeMarcus Cousins. "When we're supposed to go under screens, we're going over screens, and we gave up a lot of layups."

Cousins was easily the most frustrated man on the court for much of the night. Employing its incredibly effective 1-3-1 zone -- with the 6-foot-2 Mazzula often the "1" under the basket -- West Virginia continually denied entry to the freshman. Time and again, Mazzulla successfully wrestled with a man eight inches taller.

"At one point in the game, he looked at me and said 'Are you serious?'" said Mazzulla. "I said, 'Yeah, I'm serious. You're going to have to punch me in the face for me to get off you.'"

Cousins, who has spent the entire season fighting off similar aggressors, tried mightily to bite his tongue about what leeway officials might have afforded the Mountaineers but couldn't resist entirely.

"They [the Mountaineers] were more physical -- they were allowed to be more physical -- and they outplayed us," he said.

In return for collapsing on Cousins and forward Patrick Patterson, the Mountaineers voluntarily gave Wildcats shooters Wall, Eric Bledsoe and Darius Miller free reign from beyond the arc -- and it worked like a charm.

John Calipari's Wildcats never portended to be a great three-point shooting team, but who would have imagined them missing 20 straight shots from behind the arc? DeAndre Liggins' trey nearing desperation time with 3:24 left saved Kentucky from the embarrassment of an oh-fer for the night -- though 4-of-32 isn't much better.

"The 1-3-1 bothered us more than I thought it would," said Calipari. "We've had shooting days like this, but we won anyway because maybe the teams weren't quite as good as West Virginia. But today that team was too good for us to shoot like we did and still win the game."

Though West Virginia led by double-digits for much of the second half, building its lead to as much as 16 with 4:25 remaining, the Wildcats may still have had a shot if not for another one of Calipari's familiar downfalls: Free-throw shooting. Kentucky hit just 10 of 22 from the stripe in the second half.

The Wildcats got to within 69-63 with 41 seconds left, but by then Wall -- who notched 19 points, nine rebounds, five assists and four steals in likely his last college game -- had fouled out, and Kentucky quickly ran out of ammo.

As a result, there are presumably countless broken hearts back in Lexington. For most of the past year, Calipari and his band of freshman stars had energized a downtrodden fan base, thrilling them throughout a 35-win season, but the unspoken benchmark all along had been to reach Indianapolis. Instead, the program's uncharacteristic Final Four drought will continue for at least a 13th season, while the cogs of this team will next be seen shaking hands with David Stern.

"I've never had this much fun in my life," Cousins said of the season now ended. "I wish we could have ended it on a good note for some of the [veterans] who've been through hell the last couple of years. We did a lot of good things, but we didn't accomplish our main goal."

Meanwhile, many in Morgantown are likely readjusting their goals today. They've waited 50-plus years for their first taste of the Final Four since Jerry West donned the blue-and-gold, and surely it's every bit as sweet as they imagined.

But suddenly, there is just one team left in this tournament, Duke, with a higher seed than the Mountaineers. They'll face either the Blue Devils (against whom Mazzulla had his previous career night in the 2008 second round) or Baylor next Saturday. They've now hoisted two trophies in the past three weeks, first at the Big East Tournament, now here, and they're as qualified as anyone still standing to do it again.

"This was a national championship game," said forward Wellington Smith. "Since the start of the tournament, there was always Kentucky looming. Now that we've beaten them, it's like, 'Why can't we win the national championship?'"

After watching the Mountaineers win a game without hitting a two-point field goal for an entire half, after watching Mazzulla more than double his previous season-high point total upon meeting the best point guard in the country, there's no reason to believe they can't.

There's no reason to discount any possibility at this point, because whatever the rest of this tourney has in store, we've yet to imagine it.

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