West Virginia-Kentucky game is won by Mountaineers, who advance to Final Four
Sunday, March 28, 2010
SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- After the West Virginia fans chanted "Take Me Home, Country Roads" and "Final Four" on Saturday, they joined together for another chant, "Huggy," in honor of Coach Bob Huggins, who has the second-seeded Mountaineers in the Final Four after a 73-66 victory over top-seeded Kentucky in the East Region final.
"I want to thank the state of West Virginia," Huggins told the crowd over Carrier Dome's public-address system.
It is the Mountaineers' first Final Four since 1959 and Huggins's first appearance in college basketball's final weekend since 1992, when he was a young coach at Cincinnati. He's now 56 years old and in his third year at his alma mater, having endured a turbulent career that included evidence of both his personal and professional vulnerability.
But he found his greatest fulfillment by returning home to West Virginia, a state thrilled about the native son who has them back among college basketball's best after the marquee matchup of the Elite Eight -- and the only one that featured a region's top two teams.
"This could have been the final game, us against them," Kentucky Coach John Calipari said. "Really, they're that good."
West Virginia (31-6) did not enter the season with the same fanfare as Kentucky (35-3), which had been favored to reach the Final Four since October. Mountaineers assistant coach Billy Hahn said the team says "national champs" at the end of every huddle, a constant reminder of the goal. But even if the coaches want them to think that way, the notion of being one of the final four teams remaining -- much less the final team -- was still foreign.
"Fifteen, 20 minutes ago," senior forward Wellington Smith said after the game when asked when it first sunk in that the Mountaineers could be a Final Four team. "I kind of knew that we could make it this far, but I just never thought it would happen. . . . There was always Kentucky looming. We always knew we'd have to play Kentucky. Now that we've played Kentucky, it's like, wow, that basically was a national championship game. And we have a chance. We could go all the way."
On Saturday, West Virginia played like a national championship team. After a first half in which their only field goals were three-pointers, the Mountaineers built a 16-point lead in the final five minutes of the second half. Kentucky missed its first 20 three-pointers and struggled to defend the Mountaineers in key situations.
West Virginia's catalyst was Joe Mazzulla, the point guard whose college career has included invasive shoulder surgery and an off-the-court incident -- he pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct in August after grabbing a woman by the throat at a bar in Morgantown, W.Va. -- that might have halted his comeback.
But on the biggest stage of his college career -- and playing in place of starting point guard Darryl Bryant -- Mazzulla recorded a career high with 17 points. He was named the East Region's most valuable player.
"Watching basketball, you always say, 'What if we do this, what if we make it to the Final Four?' " Mazzulla said, wearing a necklace styled from the cut-down net. "And we did it, and you don't really know what to do. It's just a lot of hard work paid off. We celebrate it now, but we know what our main goal is."
Throughout the season, Calipari said inexperience was an issue for the Wildcats even as their heralded freshmen class marched Kentucky to the top of the polls. Although Calipari refused to use it as an excuse after the game and emphasized that Kentucky was outplayed, he did say that the Wildcats' inexperience caught up to them.
It might have been the final college games for John Wall (19 points, 9 rebounds, 5 assists) and DeMarcus Cousins (15 points and eight rebounds), who helped Kentucky to 35 wins but not a Final Four.
"You have to be happy that the program is back up and we won a lot of games," Wall said from a dejected locker room, "but you're disappointed that you didn't reach the goal we had as a team, and that's winning a championship."
Despite the disappointment, Calipari was happy for his old friend, Huggins, who suffered a heart attack in 2002 and lost his job at Cincinnati in 2005. After a year at Kansas State, Huggins returned home to the place that he belongs. Those fans who were singing, later gave Huggins and his team a final request through a chant: "two more wins."
"I talk about being special," Huggins told those fans. "Two more would be really special."