SYRACUSE, N.Y. —
West Virginia, your Country Roads lead to Indianapolis.
Playing almost as if they were in a time capsule, the Mountaineers reverted to some familiar March Madness basketball and upset a favored Kentucky team, 73-66, to advance to the Final Four for the first time since Jerry West led the 1959 team there.
For coach Bob Huggins it is a return to the Final Four for the first time since 1992.
The Mountaineers will play the winner of the Duke-Baylor game, but they don’t care if they have to play the Cleveland Cavaliers … they’re headed for the final showdown.
Moments after Devin Ebanks had tossed the ball skyward with the final buzzer still echoing through the Carrier Dome, seconds after the players had been given championship hats and jerseys and just before they would symbolically cut down the nets, Bob Huggins was given the microphone as his team held the East Regional championship trophy aloft.
“I’ve talked to this team about being special,” Huggins said. “Two more wins and they’ll be really special.”
That’s all it is, two more wins to a first national championship, a national championship Bob Huggins told his team he had returned to West Virginia to win.
Joe Mazzulla, who tormented Kentucky with driving layups and spectacular defense at the base of the 1-3-1 zone, made the title seem even closer when he noted they were but “80 minutes left to make it really special.”
There were so many stories in this game that it is almost impossible to focus in on one, but the overriding theme is that the more things change the more they stay the same.
Huggins arrived with a reputation for hard-nosed, man-to-man defense, for playing a strong, physical game. Against what he was replacing in John Beilein, it was almost a matter of brawn vs. brains. Both systems worked, but Huggins had his and Beilein had his and everyone in Morgantown enjoyed it, from Kevin Pittsnogle’s 3s to Mike Gansey’s dash to Joe Herber’s intelligence.
But that was supposed to be yesterday, yet to see the game plan Huggins put together for this game against his close friends, John Calipari, and his Wildcats, you’d have thought he stumbled across a John Beilein playbook.
To begin with, Huggins stymied Kentucky with the 1-3-1 that Beilein loved, using it nearly all game.
Ebanks was long at the point and little Mazzulla, down on the baseline, was a gnat who drove 6-11 DeMarcus Cousins crazy as he banged bodies with him.
The result of the defense was that star guard John Wall lost many of his best assets, Cousins was frustrated and ineffective and Kentucky could not bring WVU out of the defense by hitting a shot. This is a team that had hit a 3-point shot in 786 consecutive games and went into the final four minutes of the game 0-for-20 on 3s.
“We’ve had shooting days like this and won,” Calipari said, “but not against teams as good as West Virginia.”
“We came in thinking we would change defenses on them, try to keep them off balance,” Huggins explained. “I don’t know, maybe halfway through the first half it seemed like the 1-3-1 was better, so we were going to ride it as long as we could ride it.”
They rode it all the way to Indianapolis.
So, they had the Beilein 1-3-1 look and then there was matter of hitting 3-point shots. As we mentioned, Kentucky was nearly shut out from 3.
Sit down for this …. every basket West Virginia made in the first half was a 3-point shot, so much so that John Calipari made a point at halftime to tell his players they had to get on Da’Sean Butler and Kevin Jones.
The Mountaineers came out of the locker room and Jones hit a 3, the team’s 10th of the game.
So the Mountaineers used the 1-3-1 and hit 3s, which sounds very familiar to those who remember Beilein. This will sound familiar to them, too.
WVU was outrebounded 51-36, giving up 24 offensive rebounds to just 10. It was just like a Beilein performance, right down to finding a way to win without the rebounds.
In fact, in the second half, with leading scorer Butler bottled up, WVU increased its lead to has many as 16 points, then watched Kentucky chip away in the longest four minutes in basketball history.
The 16-point lead came as the Mountaineers ran cut after cut, leading to easy layups for Ebanks and especially Mazzulla, whose speed and daring left Kentucky breathless. He finished with 17 points and named the MVP of the East Regional, making it so the Mountaineers could get by without Truck Bryant and his broken foot.
“I think our offensive execution really wears teams down,” Mazzulla said. “We’re at our worst when we take forced shots and when we don’t execute. When we kind of force John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins to kind of come off screens and to kind of chase us, I just think it wears them down and gets them tired. We didn’t give them any easy looks at the basket, either. I thought the 1-3-1 was a lot more physical than we’ve played in the past.”
In the end, it was a spectacular victory over a great team, one that ends its season 35-3 while WVU advances with a 31-6 record, the last 10 wins in a row.
Butler had 18 points, Mazzulla 17, Kevin Jones 13 and Ebanks 12 but rest assured, Kentucky has to be scratching its head wondering how it lost a game in which it took 15 more shots, had 15 more rebounds, outscored WVU 36-18 in the paint, had a 19-6 advantage in second-chance points and led 19-9 in fast break points.
They’ll just have to write it up to the ghost of John Beilein.
E-mail Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org.