SYRACUSE, N.Y. —
The final buzzer had just gone off and Devin Ebanks, who earlier in the evening had put himself onto every NCAA blooper reel that will ever be shown, losing the basketball as he was breaking away for an easy layup, this time had the basketball firmly in possession, just as West Virginia University had the upset over Kentucky that would send them to the Final Four firmly in its possession.
As players began dancing and whooping and hollering, Ebanks sent the ball skyward, sailing higher and higher until it looked like a tiny dot against the white Carrier Dome roof. The way this evening had transpired, you would have expected that it would somehow come down through the basket, for almost everything West Virginia was throwing up at the basket from outside the 3-point arc had done just that.
But this basketball landed squarely into the hands of Jay Bilas, the CBS announcer and former Duke player, as Ebanks rushed to the media table and climbed upon it, exuberant at the way everything had transpired.
As Ebanks did this, back behind him, between the free throw circle and the halfcourt line, two men stood and embraced warmly. One is a bear of a man by the name of Huggins, a basketball coach who had just returned to the Final Four, and the other was Joe Mazzulla.
The hug was hard and tender at the same time, almost like a tear can be either of sorrow or joy, for in some ways both men had lived the same story and now were on the verge of total redemption.
The Huggins story is well known, one of the game’s greatest but most controversial coaches, run out of Cincinnati after a very public DUI and a less public battle with a new president who could not condone what she perceived his program to be.
He was out of coaching a year, returned at Kansas State, then came back home to West Virginia, where he was born, where he went to college and where he played.
“The first day I told the team I came back to bring the national championship to West Virginia,” he said.
It wasn’t “coachspeak” by any sense of the word. He believed he could do it.
Mazzulla was there that day, somewhat an out-of-control player with a similar personality, a good kid who just needed to grow up.
Then one day in a game against Mississippi he went down in a tangle battling for the ball and came away with a broken growth plate in his left shoulder, a horrible injury.
“Everyone on the medical staff said if you can avoid surgery, avoid it,” Huggins would reveal later in the evening, after Mazzulla had put on a spectacular 17-point performance to win the East Regional’s MVP title.
They let it go as long as they could but it wouldn’t heal, so he underwent surgery but the recovery was slow and painful.
One day he walked into Huggins’ office with tears in his eyes, these not being those tears of joy, for he could not use his left arm and he was still in pain.
“What will I do if I can’t 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.
Slowly he came back. Huggins would play him here and there, more for Mazzulla’s good than the team’s, just giving him a role. He could play defense, but he had to shoot his free throws right handed and that meant he couldn’t play at crucial moments.
The last three or four weeks, however, everything has been strong. He’s shooting and shooting well, if reluctantly.
Then, Truck Bryant, the other point guard, broke his foot. Huggins not only had to play Mazzulla, he had to get more out of him than he ever had gotten before. He had to play every NCAA game as he played the NCAA game against Duke two years ago.
WVU beat Washington, but now it was playing to go to the Final Four and against no less an opponent than Kentucky, a team that everyone deemed to be superior.
The ball was in Mazzulla’s court, so to speak, and he delivered almost beyond anyone’s belief, except his own, that is.
From the moment he hit a long 3-point shot, you knew this would be a game to remember. See, Joe Mazzulla doesn’t hit 3-point shots.
His last had been in the Great Alaska Shootout … in 2008.
Now, everything was together. He was running circles around Kentucky defenders, breaking loose for layups. Over and over he used his amazing speed and deftness, once hitting the free throw, putting on a head fake to the right that froze a defender, cutting at full speed to the left and going in uncontested.
What’s more, he played the bottom of the 1-3-1 zone and harassed Kentucky’s mountainous freshman, DeMarcus Cousins, clawing, grabbing, pushing, shoving. Physically he was no match, but he got into his head and Cousins was useless to the Wildcats at times.
“He was holding onto DeMarcus,” Kentucky coach John Calipari would say. “He was physical, we couldn’t find him to get him the ball. If we could have knocked down a shot we might have opened things up down low, but we couldn’t.”
Indeed, Kentucky missed its first 20 3s, not hitting one until the final four minutes of the game.
Amazingly, following Mazzulla’s lead in the first half, the Mountaineers did not make a two-point basket, but had eight 3s and actually led at the half.
The second half they changed offense, ran Mazzulla off screens over and over, wearing Kentucky down until the band was playing “Country Roads” and Bob Huggins and Mazzulla were embracing on the court.
E-mail Bob Hertzel at email@example.com.