Mazzulla Frustrates Kentucky, Points West Virginia to Final Four
SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- DeMarcus Cousins, Kentucky's 6-foot-11, 270-pound wide body of a center, stared down at West Virginia's 6-2, 200-pound point guard Joe Mazzulla in disbelief.
It was during the first half of Saturday night's East Region final between the Wildcats and the Mountaineers. Despite surrendering seven inches and 70 pounds to Cousins, Mazzulla was hounding and harassing -- and anything else he could get away with -- the Wildcats' freshman in WVU's 1-3-1 zone defense.
"At one point he looked at me and said 'Are you serious?' " Mazzulla said. "I said, 'Yeah, I'm serious. You're going to have to punch me in the face to get me off you.' "
Mazzulla's bulldog tenacity on defense and his career night on offense sparked the Mountaineers to a 73-66 victory against Kentucky and a berth in the school's first Final Four since 1959.
Mazzulla was named the East Region's Most Outstanding Player. He also probably would have been named the Most Annoying Player as far as Kentucky was concerned.
"It was pretty tough," Kentucky's John Wall said. "He was holding on pretty tough to DeMarcus. We tried to lob the ball to him. We couldn't get it to him. We don't know what he was doing down there."
Doing what Mazzulla does best -- pestering the opposition.
Even Mazzulla admitted: "I'm kind of loony sometimes."
"Mazzulla was down there, he was physical, he was tough, doing whatever he could do as a defensive player to stop us from scoring down low," Kentucky's Patrick Patterson said. "He was successful with that.
"And they just played a great team defense. Him down low and the 1-3-1 bothered us. They just had a great defensive effort and they just played hard and they just outworked us."
Mazzulla finished with a career-high 17 points in a season-high 30 minutes, before fouling out with 2:21 remaining. Mazzulla said his defensive performance was nothing out of the ordinary.
"That's just what Huggs [Coach Bob Huggins] asked of me and what we had to do to win the game," Mazzulla said in the winning locker room, wearing one of the nets around his neck. "I don't know if it was satisfaction or more doing just what's asked of me."
Mazzulla's play was even more vital because the Mountaineers were without starter Darryl "Truck" Bryant, who suffered a broken foot on Tuesday. Bryant, however, told FanHouse he would play in next week's Final Four.
Bryant said he wouldn't have had the opportunity to play in the Final Four, if not for Mazzulla.
"Joe stepped up. I knew he had it in him, but I've never seen him play this good before," Bryant said. "Honestly if it wasn't for Joe, we probably wouldn't have won this game.
"DeMarcus Cousins is a freshman, so he's still gonna go for that little stuff. It's funny. He's asking [the referees] for a foul and Joe's 6-2 and he's 6-11."
West Virginia's Kevin Jones, a 6-8 sophomore forward, knows what it's like to go against Mazzulla in practice.
"I said [Friday] whoever Joe is guarding will have a frustrating game," Jones said. "He's just relentless. No matter who he's guarding he's going to find a way to get under your skin in so many ways."
Just a few months ago, Huggins wasn't sure if Mazzulla would even be playing at this point. Last year, he fractured the growth plate in his left (shooting) shoulder.
"He didn't know if he would ever play again," Huggins said. "They had never done that surgery on a basketball player."
All of the medical officials recommended avoiding surgery if possible, but Mazzulla had the surgery. Mazzulla walked into Huggins' office one day with tears in his eyes, wondering what he would do if he couldn't play anymore.
"He's been good about really working hard at it," Huggins said. "He's not one of those guys that got frustrated with rehab. We had a long talk at halftime of the Cincinnati game because I didn't think he was Joe.
"He didn't play with great enthusiasm, he wasn't aggressive. To be good, he has to be that way."
Mazzulla was certainly that way Saturday night.
"They had four or five NBA prospects, three lottery prospects, what do you have to lose?" said Mazzulla, who was averaging only 2.2 points and 15 minutes entering the game. "Huggs is a guy, regardless who you're playing against, he has all the confidence in the world in you."
Ironically, on Wednesday a TV reporter asked Mazzulla what it was like to have to replace Bryant in the Sweet 16. Mazzulla deadpanned that since it was his first Sweet 16, he didn't know what to expect.
Mazzulla, of course, had played in the Sweet 16 as a freshman. He said all the questions about how West Virginia would do without Bryant didn't concern him.
"It wasn't motivation, it would be selfish of me to make this as a personal challenge that I can do it without Truck, because I can't," Mazzulla said. "It's just a matter of us coming together as team. It's not about me, it's about us."
Huggins, though, gushed about Mazzulla's perseverance.
"He's a great kid," Huggins said. "No one has any idea what he went through with the injury and how he came back, how hard it was."
Mazzulla still wanted to downplay his contributions.
"March is an opportunity for kids to fulfill dreams," Mazzulla said. "And that's all I'm doing."
Contact FanHouse senior writer Brett McMurphy at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @BrettmcmurphY