SYRACUSE, N.Y. - It's almost heaven, West Virginia.
Da’Sean Butler and the Mountaineers are off to the Final Four for the first time since 1959.
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 Saturday night.
“It’s something we’ve been preaching,” Butler said. “Not even just two more. Ever since we won our first game. Five more, four more, three more. It doesn’t mean anything unless you win the whole thing.”
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.
“The first day I was here, I told them I came back to win a national championship,” Huggins said. “I came back to win it for the university, having played there, and for the great people of our state.”
For freshman sensation John Wall and the young Wildcats (35-3), a scintillating season ended with a clang.
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 to go 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 field goal.
The second-seeded Mountaineers (31-6) used the same aggressive, in-your-face defense that led them to their three previous tournament wins. They closed the lanes, leaving Kentucky’s speedy guards with few chances to penetrate. And they flustered Kentucky’s big men, particularly center DeMarcus Cousins, by collapsing three players into the post once he got the ball.
West Virginia also denied the top-seeded Wildcats easy shots by committing fouls and forcing Kentucky to make free throws, which didn’t happen. The Wildcats went 16 of 29 from the line.
“We made it very difficult for them to see open cutters and just make plays in general,” Butler said.
Other than an 11-0 run early, the Wildcats were wildly ineffective all game. Darius Miller missed all six shots, and Patrick Patterson and Eric Bledsoe were a combined 6 for 16.
Mazzulla, meanwhile, played the game of his life when West Virginia really needed it.
Hindered by a surgically repaired shoulder, the backup guard averaged 2.2 points – barely worth a mention in most scouting reports. He started Saturday because West Virginia 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 shouting encouragement.
Mazzulla thanked Huggins for sticking with him as he recovered from his injury.
“He still gave me a role,” Mazzulla said. “That kind of helped my perseverance.”
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.
“I talked about it being special,” Huggins told the crowd. “Two more and it will be really special.”