WVU Takes Country Road on to Indy
SYRACUSE, N.Y. – Before John Flowers could leap atop the scorer's table and lead a golden-clad crowd in a giddy, off-key rendition of "Take Me Home, Country Road", West Virginia had to become unconscious.
How else to explain those 3-pointers that kept falling from the sky like perfect rainbows and slipping straight through the net, again and again and again? The Mountaineers are many things – tough, gritty bruisers is their main identity – but they've never been confused with a team that can shoot straight.
And yet here went their jumpers from eons away, dropping as delicate as cherry blossoms. Suddenly even players who had hands of stone were blessed with the Midas touch, as long as they were shooting from the front row. At one point, the Mountaineers drained four straight treys, and 6-of-10 despite missing everything up close, and if Bob Huggins didn't faint right there, it's only because he didn't want to mess up his chic sweat suit.
"Hey, whatever gets us to the promised land," Huggins, the West Virginia coach, was saying on the court after his second-seeded Mountaineers knocked off top seed Kentucky, 73-66, in an East Regional Elite Eight game that was as wacky as they come. "We're going to Indianapolis to play in the Final Four and I couldn't be more proud."
This has been an absolutely sensational tournament, with each day slipping in another surprise, another gob smacking, jaw-dropping shocker. When arguably the two best teams in the country met at the Carrier Dome Saturday night, odds were the unusual or the spectacular would materialize, though predicting West Virginia would sink more than half its shots from beyond the arc was even more improbable than having a perfect bracket.
Without their regular point guard, and with another stud guard's hand bruised like a week old apple, the Mountaineers advanced to the Final Four for the first time since 1959. It's taken Huggins 18 years to find his way back to the championship weekend, but he wasn't inclined to get sentimental. He was raised in Morgantown, he played for West Virginia, he has the work ethic of a coal miner and somehow he got a team stuffed with tough New Yorkers to believe in the power of one.
But ask him to reflect on where he came from to where he is now -- on the court, amidst a clearly emotional longtime-coming celebration -- and he gestures to the guys who call him "Huggs" as if he were their dad. Or crazy favorite uncle.
"Huggs won't show it, but this means everything to him," said Flowers, the exuberant forward, after he and his teammates had finally stopped dancing on the court and in the aisles and atop any fixture that would hold their weight. It was a joyful party for the Big East champs, and when someone said it was probably even wilder in the streets of West Virginia, Huggins' eyes blinked back pride. For a long sweet moment, the coach who never stops stomping and screaming on the sidelines couldn't say a single word.
John Calipari, the Kentucky coach who did a masterful job convincing his young, NBA-bound players to subjugate their egos for this season-long ride, had talked the other day about what happens to good teams when karma goes against them. He meant a hot hand, someone going off for 40 points, but not this.
Not falling behind despite West Virginia failing to make a two-point shot in the entire first half. There's karma, and then there's just crazy stuff not even a mad scientist with a chalkboard could dream up.
Cold up close (0-for-16), their lay-ups getting knocked out of the air by monster hands, West Virginia began passing the ball around the arc, searching for space. Da'Sean Butler hit a trey that put the Mountaineers up 21-18 following a Kentucky turnover, and then Butler dropped another 3 despite getting fouled by Kentucky's John Wall for a four-point play. Butler injured his hand in an awkward fall Thursday night during the Mountaineers' grueling win over Washington, but as Flowers noted, "Da'Sean's from Newark. You think he's gonna wimp out of a game just 'cause he's only got one decent hand?"
And goodness, Calipari had raved about West Virginia guard Joe Mazzulla barely 24 hours earlier, saying he reminds him of a long-ago quarterback named Billy Kilmer in that Mazzulla might look funky with those wobbly shots but all the kid does is win. But really, nobody thought Mazzulla would grab this game and shake it by the scruff of its neck. If he didn't outplay Wall (right), the freshman who in a few months will make some NBA team awfully happy, Mazzulla sure did outshine him. Not long ago Mazzulla had shoulder surgery that would have sidelined most players for a year, maybe forever, but he merely learned to do everything with his opposite hand, and made everyone forget the Mountaineers were without Darryl "Truck" Bryant, their top point guard out with a broken foot.
"I said our motto (is) an opportunity for kids to fulfill their dreams. And we've done one of them and we have two more games to fulfill our highest dreams," said Mazzulla, once he had finally stopped pushing the ball and forcing the Wildcats to give chase and driving everyone batty with his defense and knocking down backbreaking lay-ups and ripping off 17 points, including a rare trey.
Whew. Imagine what he could do with two good wings.
Kentucky, so talented on the break, so huge on the front line, could beat quite a few NBA teams. West Virginia, a team that doesn't shoot very well, knew it had to fight harder than ever on defense, limit the Wildcats' rim-shaking dunks, their killer transition. And make the big guy come unglued. DeMarcus Cousins has been Kentucky's difference maker for much of the season, learning on the fly to keep his composure even while opponents grab and hack and hold him. Not yet 20, he's had his front teeth knocked out four times over the years.
He's never been whacked quite like this.
It probably wasn't intentional, but when Cousins hit Butler in a place no man wants to be hit early in the second half under the Kentucky net, the entire Dome cringed in unison. Cousins finished with 15 points, eight rebounds and too many bruises to count after 40 minutes of hand-to-hand combat with a nasty defense that changed looks as often as an amoeba.
Didn't matter if the Mountaineers played 1-3-1, or 3-2, or man. They never stopped bumping and grinding, making it rough on Cousins inside, and difficult for Wall to work his magic through the paint. The Kentucky duo will likely be two of the top three picks in the NBA, but on this night they were handcuffed like never before. Kentucky out-rebounded the Mountaineers, 51-36, but the Wildcats were oh-for-everything from beyond the arc until late in the game, and 16-of-29 from the free throw line, an Achilles' heel that seems to haunt Calipari teams. Cousins and Wall admitted they were worn out from chasing Mountaineers around screens.
The lasting image from Kentucky's last game is this: Wildcats pouting, whining to refs and Calipari again being out-smarted by his good friend Huggins.
"Usually we win these type of games. They are a great team. We couldn't fight our way through it and win," Wall said.
"West Virginia played a great game tonight. They outplayed us. I mean, there was some loose balls we should have got. We were bad on defense tonight. They outplayed us, and we lost," Cousins said.
All season long, Calipari made the game fun again for Kentuckians after an unbearable drought, but with so many of his players taking the one-and-done approach, he has to start again mostly from scratch. Upon taking the reigns this season, he recruited and signed the greatest players America had to offer. Then he had them watch "Remember the Titans," and used the film to teach how trust, respect, like and love can bind a team, even one with much of the starting rotation about to turn pro. He keeps "for sale" signs in his garage, as reminders of how tenuous this job is, this life is. Saturday's loss hit him hard, according to his players, but Calipari would only say he was to be blamed.
"I didn't have them as organized as they needed to be," Calipari said. "I don't want to have excuses. They outplayed us, but I think there were times that the inexperience, you know, hurt us."
"I thought this could have been the final game, us against them. Really. They're that good."
So said the man who for another year will remain the best coach to never win it all.