By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
The issue had already been decided, a wonderfully wild and wacky sellout crowd hootin’ and hollerin’ as only a West Virginia University crowd can, the Mountaineers leading 68-55 with 2:54 to go in a game they would win, 72-58, when Truck Bryant took Notre Dame star Ben Hansbrough one-on-one to the basket.
He made a move that Hansbrough could not defend as the shriek shrill of the referee’s whistle pierced the Coliseum air, a fifth foul being called on Hansbrough, meaning his 19th point of the game would be his last.
As Hansbrough, a candidate for Player of the Year in the Big East Conference, began walking toward the bench — the student section greeting each step with a rollicking “left … right … left”, he was met by WVU’s guard Joe Mazzulla.
“Nice game,” said Mazzulla.
Hansbrough stopped, looked at Mazzulla, then wrapped him a warm hug, and replied:
“Congratulations, and nice game.”
Hansbrough then stepped back, looked Mazzulla in the eyes and added “we are two of the toughest guys in the conference.”
Mazzulla looked back at him and added, he says “somewhat jokingly” that “I’ll take No. 1 and give you a close second.”
Knowing Mazzulla, the comment was very little jokingly at best, for he had completely immersed himself into the game.
“Every possession was a battle between he and I,” Mazzulla said. “Because of how hard we had to play against each other, we gained respect for each other as the game went on.”
That was not a surprise. Coming into this crucial game for the Mountaineers, who had lost three of four and really have been in danger of losing an NCAA Tournament bid, WVU knew the guard play would decide this game.
“We took it as a challenge, to really go against their guards,” Mazzulla said. “They are one of the better teams in the conference, and we wanted to match their toughness and intensity.”
This, though, was more than just a one-time battle between Mazzulla and Hansbrough. At least that’s the way Bob Huggins saw it.
“It probably goes back to last year,” Huggins said.
WVU and Notre Dame played twice last year, the Irish winning a taut 70-68 game in South Bend, the Mountaineers rallying wildly from 22 points down to fall just short when Da’Sean Butler’s 3-point shot with 2 seconds left missed.
In the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden WVU turned the tables on Notre Dame, winning 53-51 when Tory Jackson’s potential game-winning 3 ricocheted off the rim with four seconds left and then Wellington Smith swiped away the rebound from Tyron Nash.
Hansbrough had led the Notre Dame comeback in that game with consecutive 3s and then two free throws, all of it leaving Mazzulla with a difficult memory.
As this season has gone on, WVU has not had particularly good guard play, and that is being terribly generous.
But in this one Mazzulla became Mr. Inside and Truck Bryant Mr. Outside, combining for 40 points, 24 of them belonging to Bryant’s five of 11 shooting from the field, four of seven from 3 while also making 10 of 12 free throws.
That was made possible because Mazzulla was slashing to the basket, running through and around the Notre Dame guards, even Hansbrough, to hit six of 10 shots while dishing out seven assists.
“On ball screens, they weren’t as quick hedging them and we were able to get around them and get into the lane. When Truck is making shots, they can’t help and driving to the basket becomes that much easier,” Mazzulla said.
Mazzulla called it “the missing piece of the puzzle.”
“We always had the defense. We were holding teams to 22 and 24 points in the first half. That was just the missing piece. We finally put a full game together,” Mazzulla said.
E-mail Bob Hertzel at email@example.com.