The Times West Virginian

WVU Sports

March 20, 2011

HERTZEL COLUMN: Mountaineers remembered as ‘good people’

TAMPA, Fla. — As you entered the cramped quarters that the NCAA was passing off as the West Virginia University locker room, a room barely big enough to hold Bob Huggins’ suit wardrobe, let alone an entire basketball team, you first encountered senior Cam Thoroughman.

You knew it was Thoroughman by the No. 2 jersey he was wearing, but you could not see his face, which was buried deeply into a towel, sobbing the kind of sobs that a man must sob when his heart is broken, as all of West Virginia’s was in a 71-63 loss to Kentucky in the second round of the NCAA Championships.

Across the room, at the entry to the shower room, was where the Mountaineer players could wash away the dirt from the game but not the pain of defeat. John Flowers stood in the doorway, his coach, Bob Huggins, alongside, his arm wrapped around the senior who had spent most of the day on the bench, suffering through what was maybe the most trying game of his career.

In the middle of the room, just as he had been in the middle of everything all day, stood Joe Mazzulla, surrounded by mini-cams and ball-point pens, trying to explain the inexplicable, about the way his Mountaineers had led by eight points at the half then come out and scored only 22 points in the second half and lost the game.

As always, his explanations were poignant, incisive and informative. He was holding up fine, until it was pointed out to him that he had come face-to-face with the inevitable, his final college basketball game. It was something that certainly he had anticipated, but nonetheless it comes out of the blue and hits like a sledgehammer when it arrives.

“A little sad, a little happy,” he said, trying to explain the emotions. “It’s sad to go out thinking you could have played better. Of course, with time, it will get easier to cope with.”

It is a time when you don’t want to take the uniform off, when you don’t want to leave the locker room, as cramped and crowded as it is, when you know the plane ride home is the last one you will take with your teammates, men who first became friends, then brothers to you.

It was noted that, in the morning, he will be a former basketball player, a former Mountaineer.

“Maybe I will just stay asleep as long as possible ... or not go to sleep at all,” he said, knowing the latter was far more likely than the former.

His performance, once again, had bordered on magnificent, 20 points, which gave him a career high in his final game, to go with three rebounds, four assists, a block, a steal; all with an aching hip, the result of a hard foul he endured with 14:40 left in the first half, being slammed to the floor by Eloy Vargas.

Intentional? Maybe. After all, Mazzulla had killed Kentucky last year and was in the process of doing it again. In fact, with 15 first-half points to go with 14 second-half points last year he had scored 29 points in the equivalent of a full game of basketball against the Wildcats.

But Mazzulla knows something about pain and would say in a game like this an injury would have to be worse than that, more like “a limb hanging off” to get him out of the game.

In many ways, this team that ended its season with a 21-12 record was as accomplished as was last year’s Final Four team and, much like Mazzulla, in that it had so much to overcome during this season. There were personnel problems, complete with Danny Jennings leaving the team at halftime, suspensions, injury, sickness.

“This team had a lot of distractions and did not have the name players we had last year with Da’Sean Butler and Devin Ebanks,” Mazzulla said. “Through adversity we became a better team.”

And he became a better leader and player.

“It’s hard for anybody to understand what Joe’s been through. I mean, he woke up every day for the better part of a year not knowing whether he’d ever play basketball again,” Huggins said. “He actually didn’t know whether he’d ever be able to get his arm above his shoulder. And I don’t think anybody will ever realize the physical part that he went through, the time he spent in the training room, the rehab that he did. It took him pretty much a year and a half or almost two years to be able to play again. A lot of people wouldn’t have done that.”

It was Mazzulla and Thoroughman who really represented what this 2010-11 West Virginia team stood for. Like Mazzulla, Thoroughman had battled through a terrible injury, this to his knee, and had to do things as a player that no man ever should have to do.

“I don’t know if I had a game at any time in my whole career where I wasn’t going against someone who wasn’t bigger, stronger and more athletic than me,” he said.

He did it willingly and held his own.

“It is what it is,” he said.

“We recruited Cam as a guard. He’s playing center. He’s physically overmatched every game,” Huggins said. “I don’t think he’d mind me telling you he doesn’t shoot it very well. But he just competes and he knows how to play. You know, I think the thing that can be said for all those guys is they compete, you know, they step to the plate and compete.

“We’ve only had Casey (Mitchell) for two years, and would have liked to have been able to have him for four,” Huggins continued. “I think we probably could have done a little more for him. But it is what it is. And John Flowers has come a long way. John, coming into this year, was below a 50 percent free-throw shooter. The last time I looked he was shooting 76 percent. He’s come a long, long way. They’re guys that like to be in the gym. They like to be in the gym, guys that love being in the gym.

“Jonnie West wasn’t going to play this year, and I asked him to come back out. And he said, ‘Coach, if you need me, I’m there.’ When Jon decided he was just going to go to school full time, I said, ‘I don’t want you to be away. I want to be able to spend time with you and see you,’ and he’s in the gym every day. Came to every workout.

“They’re good people. They’re good people who are going to be very successful in whatever it is that they choose to do.”

They probably deserved a better fate, but this was not a team that was going to win a national championship, so it matters not when they went out, only that they go out being appreciated for what they are ... good people.

Email Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com.

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