MORGANTOWN — A season, no matter what the sport, is much like life itself, a journey from here to there with so many unexpected twists and turns along the way that even as you live it you know not what awaits tomorrow.
So it is with this magic 2010 West Virginia basketball season that has but a few more breaths left before it turns to past tense, with the emphasis on tense because this has been a season during which the Mountaineers walked a tight rope to history.
There were moments throughout the year, taut, tense, wonderful moments where WVU dangled from the edge of a cliff, waiting for someone to step up and save them. It is difficult to narrow to 10 the moments of truth during this season, yet in some ways it is necessary so that we can appreciate just what this team has brought us all, win or lose in Indianapolis over the weekend.
1. We begin at the end, for in some ways this moment characterizes what this team was all about. West Virginia was in Syracuse, a game away from the Final Four, facing the bluest of blue bloods in college basketball, Kentucky.
An underdog they were and they would be saved by the greatest underdog of them all, Joe Mazzulla, who would score 17 points and dazzle Kentucky with his slashing drives to the basket.
But for the moment that mattered we have to think back to the beginning of the year, to a player who could not raise his dominant arm, his left, over his head. He had spent the offseason learning to play right-handed and had struggled so badly early just to play.
Now he stood outside the 3-point line, Kentucky backing off. He looked, he pumped, he shot. The ball arched high and came down swishing through the net. It was his first 3-point goal of the year, his first since early in 2008.
Kentucky never had a chance after that.
2. This led directly to Moment No. 1, for it involved Mazzulla again. It occurred early, when he couldn’t get his arm above his shoulder, when Huggins had to pull him out of any close game because he would be fouled.
There was pain and there was doubt and Mazzulla came to Huggins in tears.
“What will I do if I can play anymore?” Mazzulla asked his coach.
“You tell me you’re the best soccer player in Rhode Island. Maybe you can play for Marlon (LeBlanc, the WVU soccer coach),” Huggins answered.
Mazzulla laughed. He was ready to do whatever it took to reach that moment in March.
3. What got WVU to the Final Four?
Let us go back to the final seconds of the Big East championship, WVU and Georgetown tied, 58-58, the clock ticking down.
Everyone in Madison Square Garden knew who would get the ball, West Virginia’s own Mr. Clutch, Da’Sean Butler. He had already won five games with last second shots and now he had the biggest shot.
He turned and jumped and shot.
When it went through the net, four seconds remained.
West Virginia was sailing into the NCAA Tournament.
4. West Virginia needed a miracle. It was the opening game of the Big East Tournament and Bob Huggins’ old school, Cincinnati, had tormented the Mountaineers, the game tied at 51-51 as Butler, who else?, got just outside the 3-point line at the top of the key.
Time was expiring as he let the ball fly. It did not go swish, but instead hit off the backboard and went through.
It counted, even though Butler didn’t call the bank. He simply broke it.
5. This is about a shot that didn’t go through.
Second round of the Big East Tournament, WVU leading Notre Dame by two points.
Tory Jackson, the Irish guard who had been scorching down the stretch of the season, had a shot at winning the game, putting up a 3. It looked true as it left his hand with 4 seconds left, but it went off the front of the rim.
Before WVU could celebrate, however, Tyrone Nash grabbed the rebound and tried a put back only to be put down by Wellington Smith.
6. It was Hot Rod Hundley’s day. They were retiring the all-time great’s No. 33 uniform number at the Coliseum. There was a question, though. Did the school’s No. 2 all-time scorer have one more basket left in him?
The Clown Prince of Basketball had to try and, sure enough, he made a hook shot on his first try, inspiring West Virginia to stun Ohio State, showing they belonged among the nation’s best, holding All-American Evan Turner to 6 of 17 shooting and 18 meaningless points.
7. Yawn, another buzzer beater by Da’Sean Butler, this one with a driving layup with 1.2 seconds left against an underdog but determined Cleveland State team.
The game provided more than just some heroics, for it carried a lesson. Cleveland State’s press drove WVU insane all game, forced them to work on beating a press, something they worked on throughout the season.
Come NCAA time they had no problem handling Missouri’s and Washington’s presses, thanks to the early-season scare.
8. All season they had waited for the moment. Now West Virginia was playing Pitt and Deniz Kilicli, the muscular freshman from Turkey, was eligible to play.
The crowd waited anxiously for his arrival on the floor, erupting when he went in.
And Kilicli delivered, scoring nine points against a Pitt team that knew not what to do with him.
9. When did this team learn it had the character to advance to the Final Four? Two games, two scenarios.
First they managed to blow a 10-point lead with less than a minute to go in regulation against Seton Hall. Surely they would fold, but no, they regrouped and won in overtime, Devin Ebanks becoming just the third player in WVU history to have 22 points, 17 rebounds and seven assists in a game.
And then there was Marquette, three days later, trailing by 7 with 41 seconds left, many in the Coliseum crowd heading for the exits. As Lee Corso would say, “Not so fast, my friend.”
WVU puts on a furious rally and — yeah, that’s right — Butler hit a jump shot with 2.3 seconds left to win the game.
No lead was too great, they learned.
10. Last we go back to the beginning, to the day they reported and to the day Bob Huggins told them the goal was to win the national championship.
They now stand 80 minutes away.
E-mail Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org.