Celebrating on the Mountaintop

The East Regional final saw the last Big East team remaining advance to the Final Four behind the will and smarts of the head coach and gritty point guard.

Bob Huggins will take your tired, your poor, and your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Huggins became famous 300 miles to the west at Cincinnati, taking players into his program that few coaches would touch because of sketchy pasts or academic problems. He took them in with open arms and used tough love to turn out an intimidating basketball team that made the Final Four in 1992. Huggins left amid personal and program turmoil, and resurfaced at Kansas State with a pair of NBA-ready players.

Photo: Britney McIntosh/The Kentucky Kernel
Kentucky's Eric Bledsoe sits in the locker room after their Elite 8 loss to West Virginia at the Carrier Dome.

After one year in Manhattan, Kansas, “Huggy Bear” found another stung entity in the West Virginia athletic department, due to the departure of its head football and head basketball coaches to the University of Michigan. Rick Rodriguez and John Beilein found the money and prestige of Michigan appealing enough to leave amidst successful Mountaineer programs (Beilein left a week after leading the basketball team to the NIT championship).  West Virginia welcomed its native son (Huggins graduated in 1977 from the school) back with open arms in 2007.

Saturday night in the Carrier Dome the entire Mountaineer Nation celebrated the program’s first Final Four berth in 51 years with a 73-66 win over top-seed Kentucky in the 2010 NCAA Men’s Basketball East Regional final.

“I came back to win a national championship,” coach Bob Huggins said after the game. “I came back to win it for the university, having played there and for the great people in our state.”

The Mountaineers (31-6) shot 57% from the floor in the second half, which allowed Huggins’ staple defense, the 1-3-1, to force 16 Wildcat turnovers and force the fleet Kentucky dribble-drive offense into a 3-point shooting massacre (Kentucky finished 4 for 32 from beyond the arc). West Virginia advances to the April 3 Final Four in Indianapolis at Lucas Oil Field and will face the winner of tomorrow’s South Regional final between Duke and Baylor.

Second chances were everywhere yellow was seen. Hard-nose West Virginia point guard Joe Mazzulla scored 17 points in his first start since Dec. 9, 2008, the Mountaineers as a team felt slighted by their No. 2 seed despite winning the Big East Tournament, and oddest of all, West Virginia needed the second half of Saturday’s game to prove they could score a two-point field goal.

Kentucky (35-3) was in high gear early as star frosh guard John Wall blew through the West Virginia man-to-man defense. Wall, considered the front runner for national player of the year, hit the breaks at 8:07 in the first half, and stepped back for a deep jumper to give the Cats a 16-9 lead.

The inability of West Virginia to make shots (25.8% from the field in the first half) speed up the Kentucky attack. “When you play Missouri, when you play Washington, when you play Kentucky, because they’re so good in transition. And if you take bad shots, you just fuel that transition,” said Huggins after the game.

On the flip side, the Wildcats had no respect for Mazzulla. At one point, Kentucky guard Eric Bledsoe was playing ten feet off Mazzulla, daring him to shoot. Mazulla, a last-minute fill-in for injured starting guard Darryl Bryant, stepped to the arc and drilled his first three-pointer Nov. 28, 2008 against Iowa.

“When I saw John (Wall) go under the screen I saw it was a perfect opportunity,” said Mazzulla, “I got nothing to lose. The worst thing is I go sit next to Huggs for a bit.”

“I told him today, ‘Will you please shoot the ball when they don’t guard you,’” said Huggins.

Mazzulla's backcourt mate Da’Sean Butler, the hero of the Big East tournament, began raining 3-pointers. Nine minutes and four 3-pointers (plus a free throw) later, and the 16-4 run put the Mountaineers ahead, 25-20.

Remarkably, West Virginia entered the halftime locker room up, 28-26, despite shooting 0-16 from inside the arc.

“In all honesty, it was a little frustrating in the first half,” said Huggins, “because every time we seemed like we got the basket, they did a great job of closing, getting to the ball, and changed our shot or blocked our shot.”

West Virginia took control of the game right at the start of the second half, when forward Kevin Jones nailed a triple. Kentucky tried to throw the ball inside to center DeMarcus Cousins. The big freshman missed in traffic, and in frustration, took a swipe at the ball in Butler’s hands. Cousins’ aim was off and he got a piece of Butler’s groin.

The Mountaineers did not make a big deal of the incidental contact, but upped the physical play in the post with Mazzulla sliding below Cousins on the bottom of the 1-3-1 to create problems. Cousins would finish with 15 points and eight rebounds, but was harassed into five turnovers.

A Mazzulla layup gave the Mountaineers a 53-43 lead late in the half and the Wildcats lost any shooting touch, missing 13 free throws on the game (including five straight by Bledsoe).

“I tell these guys all the time that it’s because we just have to grind on them and if we get screened in, they get tired and then all of the sudden it opens up things for us in the second half,” Huggins said.

“It has all year.”

Photos courtesy of Britney McIntosh of The Kentucky Kernel.

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