West Virginia's Wellington Smith, left, knocks the ball loose from Kentucky's John Wall.
David Duprey / AP Enlarge
SYRACUSE, N.Y. - Country road, take me home.
Or better yet, Indianapolis.
It's almost heaven, West Virginia. Da'Sean Butler and the Mountaineers are off to the Final Four for the first time since 1959.
Injury replacement Joe Mazzulla scored a career-high 17 points in his first start this season and West Virginia handled a cold-shooting Kentucky team stocked with future NBA players almost from the opening tip for a 73-66 victory in the East Regional final yesterday.
Mountaineers coach Bob Huggins, back with his alma mater, is in the Final Four for the first time since taking Cincinnati in 1992. It's an even longer stretch for West Virginia - Jerry West was the star of the team 51 years ago and not yet a Hall of Famer or NBA logo.
John Wall and the young Wildcats could have used West's famous shooting touch in this one. They were awful from 3-point range, missing their first 20 attempts and finishing a stunning 4 of 32 (12.5 percent). DeAndre Liggins finally hit a 3 with 3:29 left to end the drought, but by then it was too late.
West Virginia went the other way, making eight 3s in the first half without a 2-point basket.
It's been a turbulent time for Huggins since his previous Final Four appearance. He was forced out at Cincinnati, had a heart attack in 2002, and spent a year coaching Kansas State before he found the country roads back to Huntington in 2007.
He couldn't have imagined at the start of the tournament relying on Mazzulla to take his team to Indianapolis. Slowed by a bad shoulder, Mazzulla came off the bench in 35 games this season and averaged 2.2 points - barely worth a mention in most scouting reports.
He started yesterday because point guard Darryl Bryant broke his right foot Tuesday in practice.
Mazzulla dashed uncontested to the rim for several easy baskets. When he was out of the game, he was on all fours in front of the bench slamming the court in encouragement.
West Virginia fans chanted "Final Four! Final Four!" as the players took their spots at halfcourt after the final buzzer. Butler, who scored 18 points, led the Mountaineers in a little Final Four dance, and they cupped their ears to the crowd.
"I talked about it being special," Huggins told the crowd. "Two more and it will be really special."
They had the stage after Kentucky had the spotlight all season. The Wildcats (35-3), who also went 16 for 29 at the free throw line, were a strong favorite to win their first national championship since 1998 once overall No. 1 seed Kansas went down in the second round.
Instead, a team loaded with NBA-caliber players - Wall and DeMarcus Cousins among them - is left to wonder how its season ended in a whimper.
Actually, it ended in a clang.
Kentucky coach John Calipari led his talented team to the regional final in his first season, restoring the Wildcats among basketball's elite after a few underachieving seasons.
Calipari and Huggins have a close friendship that extends well beyond the basketball. Calipari was one of the few coaches to visit the hospital when Huggins had his heart attack in 2002.
Calipari spent this one staring at the roof of the Carrier Dome and wondering how the game went south. Now his focus shifts to which Wildcats are coming back. Wall, who scored 19 points, might be the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft if he decides he's one-and-done at UK. Cousins, another fab freshman, and Patrick Patterson also could bolt the Bluegrass for the NBA.
Calipari built Kentucky into a championship program again and an eighth national championship would have gone a long way toward solidifying their spot as the kings of college basketball. Other than an 11-0 run early in the game, the Wildcats were wildly ineffective all game. Darius Miller missed all six shots, and Patterson and Bledsoe were a combined 6 for 16.
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