Just when did West Virginia’s Final Four basketball season take direct aim in a national championship direction?
In this writer’s opinion, it came following the loss at Connecticut back on Feb. 22. Coach Bob Huggins, on his post-game radio show with Tony Caridi, began talking about what a national basketball championship would mean to the Mountaineers but also to the people of West Virginia.
Huggins, just when it appeared he was winding down his post-game comments, continued in a fireside chat manner with the Mountaineer sportscaster and MSN listeners about how nearly everyone in the state followed the Mountaineers and the reason he had returned to the Mountain State was to bring that NCAA title back to West Virginia.
Huggins talked and Caridi listened.
And the next day, sportscasters and sports writers all over the state were discussing Huggins’ comments.
And it didn’t take long before the players had picked up on them, because, quite obviously, he had mentioned these same factors to the young men in the Mountaineer locker room who had not been able to get the job done that night against UConn.
From then on, it seemed Da’Sean Butler and Wellington Smith were paraphrasing their coach, as well as Joe Mazzulla and others. The WVU players were making it clear that they were playing and winning for the fans all around the state, many of them who have never witnessed a Mountaineer game in person but have been following the Old Gold and Blue for years.
What Huggins was telling these players was true. The state has no professional teams to follow — the Mountaineers are the team of choice for West Virginians.
And do you know what? The Mountaineers bought into Huggins’ philosophy. As well they should have. West Virginia is the team of choice for most people in the Mountaineer State.
WVU’s level of play since that Monday night at UConn demonstrates that they recognize their importance to the state of West Virginia.
They have not lost since.
The first-half statistics of last night’s game were quite unique. The Mountaineers had made nary a two-point goal but had filled the Syracuse Carrier Dome with nine three-point shots and one free throw that had given them a 28-26 halftime edge.
A few minutes earlier, Kentucky gave indication that things might be getting ugly for West Virginia as it took a 16-9 lead and the Mountaineers didn’t appear to have very much going for them.
But then Da’Sean Butler and several of his teammates started pouring in those threes and before one could say “John Calipari’s team may be in trouble,” it was.
WVU couldn’t sink a regulation two-pointer in the first half but it did not matter. Those 3-pointers kept ringing up and with each one swishing through, Huggins’ team appeared to gain more confidence.
It sounds trite to say this was a true team victory, but that it was. Three of the regular scorers came through as usual — Butler had 18 points, Kevin Jones had 13 and Devin Ebanks 12.
But the one player Kentucky hadn’t counted on giving them fits was Joe Mazzulla, the sparkplug from Rhode Island who showed no signs of the shoulder injury that caused him to have to “redshirt” last year.
What did Mazzulla do? Nothing, except score 17 points en route to being awarded the tournament’s Most Valuable Player Trophy. Mazzulla was literally all over the floor on defense while coasting through the Kentucky defense for five layups while also adding his first 3-pointer of the season. Mazzulla was a tremendous choice for the tournament’s MVP. He certainly deserved it.
Butler had a strong first half but cooled off some in the second while Jones played his usual steady game. Ebanks had four clutch buckets in the second half.
West Virginia was outrebounded in the game by a 45-34 margin for one of the only times all season. Perhaps Huggins will overlook that statistic today, but you can bet the Mountaineers will be working on that aspect of their game this week. Cam Thoroughman came off the bench to grab three valuable offensive rebounds and he also had a big and somewhat rare basket for the Mountaineers. John Flowers sank a vital three when WVU was attempting to pull ahead.
Kentucky had one of its poorest 3-point shooting nights. The Wildcats, who had lost only two games all season to earn their No. 1 seed, drained only 4 of 31 3-point attempts while the Mountaineers finished with 10 in 24 — making only one in the second half.
But their 3-point damage had already been done.
West Virginia fans will awaken this morning with the knowledge that their Mountaineers will be among the top four teams in the country by nightfall.
The nation’s sports writers and coaches must have known what they were doing when they ranked this WVU team, embarrassed by Dayton in last year’s NCAA tournament, as the No. 5 power in the pre-season rankings. The 2010 Mountaineers never could rely on accurate shooting but few teams in the nation played better defense. Games are won on defense. That is why coach Bob Huggins will be taking this West Virginia team to his first Final Four since 1992 this weekend in Indianapolis.
It’s been 51 years since WVU last played for a national title. The 1959 title game was won by California by a single point over Jerry West and his Mountaineer mates.
Now these Mountaineer mates will continue to rely on their defense and rebounding to bring home a national championship to West Virginia and its fans. Huggins has helped his young men understand just what this might mean for our state.