Saturday, March 27, 2010
Almost Heaven . . .
Or better yet, Indianapolis.
It's almost heaven, West Virginia. Da'Sean Butler and the Mountaineers are off to the Final Four for the first time since 1959.
Injury replacement Joe Mazzulla scored a career-high 17 points in his first start this season and West Virginia handled a cold-shooting Kentucky team stocked with future NBA players almost from the opening tip for a 73-66 victory in the East Regional final Saturday night.
Mountaineers coach Bob Huggins, back with his alma mater, is in the Final Four for the first time since taking Cincinnati in 1992. It's an even longer stretch for West Virginia -- Jerry West was the star of the team 51 years ago, and not yet a Hall of Famer or NBA logo.
For freshman sensation John Wall and the young Wildcats, a scintillating season ended with a clang.
They were awful from 3-point range, missing their first 20 attempts and finishing a stunning 4 of 32 (12.5 percent). DeAndre Liggins finally hit a 3 with 3:29 left to end the drought, but by then it was too late.
West Virginia went the other way, making eight 3s in the first half without a 2-point basket.
Kentucky coach John Calipari led his talented team to the regional final in his first season, restoring the Wildcats among basketball's elite after several underachieving seasons.
But they showed their inexperience in this one, misfiring all night after using a swarming defense to beat tournament darling Cornell in the round of 16.
Calipari was left staring at the Carrier Dome roof, wondering what he could do. Now, his focus shifts to which Wildcats are coming back.
Wall, who scored 19 points, might be the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft if he decides he's one-and-done at UK. DeMarcus Cousins, another fab freshman, and Patrick Patterson also could bolt the Bluegrass for the NBA. Cousins scored 15 points.
"We've had games where we missed free throws and 3-pointers, but our defense, we gave up a lot of layups. And they just outplayed us," Cousins said. "We played bad defense. We were supposed to go under the screen but we were going over, which was giving them layups. I mean, simple stuff that we know better."
Calipari built top-seeded Kentucky into a championship contender again, and the Wildcats routed their first two tournament opponents. They became favorites to win an eighth national title when No. 1 overall seed Kansas was upset in the second round.
But other than an 11-0 run early, the Wildcats were wildly ineffective all game. Darius Miller missed all six shots, and Patterson and Eric Bledsoe were a combined 6 for 16.
It's been a turbulent time for Huggins since his previous Final Four appearance. He was forced out at Cincinnati, had a heart attack in 2002 and spent a year coaching Kansas State before he found the country roads back to Morgantown in 2007.
He couldn't have imagined at the start of the tournament relying on Mazzulla to take his team to Indianapolis. Hindered by a surgically repaired shoulder, Mazzulla came off the bench in 35 games this season and averaged 2.2 points -- barely worth a mention in most scouting reports.
He started Saturday because West Virginia point guard Darryl Bryant broke his right foot Tuesday in practice.
Mazzulla dashed uncontested to the rim for several easy baskets. When he was out of the game, he was on all fours in front of the bench slamming the court in encouragement.
West Virginia fans chanted "Final Four! Final Four!" as the players took their spots at halfcourt after the final buzzer. Butler, who scored 18 points, led the Mountaineers in a little Final Four dance and they cupped their ears to the crowd.
"I talked about it being special," Huggins told the crowd. "Two more and it will be really special."
They had the stage after Kentucky had the spotlight all season. The Wildcats (35-3), who also went 16 for 29 at the free throw line, were a strong favorite to win their first national championship since 1998 once overall No. 1 seed Kansas went down in the second round.
Instead, a team loaded with NBA-caliber players is left to wonder how its season ended in a whimper.
Butler, who played with a sore right hand, was a big part of Kentucky's problem. He made four of West Virginia's 10 3-pointers
The Mountaineers led 28-26 at halftime in one of the quirkiest 20 minutes of shooting in tournament history. They made 8 of 15 3-pointers -- and went 0 for 16 on 2s. Not inside, not mid-range, not from anywhere except beyond the arc.
Butler hit four of them, shouting toward the crowd and pounding his chest after each one.
More oddities: Kentucky missed all eight 3s in the first half and outrebounded WVU 29-13. But the Mountaineers had only three turnovers after averaging 11.9 per game this season.
Mazzulla only made five of 11 shots but all of them were clutch. Mazzulla scooted to the basket three times for untouched, uncontested layups led 47-36. He got another easy look at the basket, missed, but Devin Ebanks' tip made it 49-40 and the Mountaineers would stretch the lead to 16 points.
Kentucky was clearly flustered for the first time this tournament. Cousins, the 6-foot-11, 260-pound gregarious freshman center, started to steer Kentucky back on course on a couple of strong inside buckets. As he got back in position on defense, he clapped his hands in West Virginia forward John Flowers' face and screamed, "Let's go!"
Cousins slapped Butler in the groin reaching for a loose ball and was sent to the bench with three fouls.
Kentucky had the lottery picks. West Virginia had Mazzulla.
So they're singing "Take Me Home, Country Roads," from Syracuse to Huntington and now all the way to Indianapolis.