They will face the winner of the South regional title game between Duke and Baylor in next Saturday’s national semifinals at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. Tip-off time will be announced Sunday night, after the entire Final Four is set.
WVU took out perhaps the overall favorite to win the national title with a smothering 1-3-1 defense that greatly limited the effectiveness of the No. 1-seeded Wildcats’ plethora of talented players. UK shot only 34.3 percent from the field, including a miserable 4-of-32 (12.5 percent) performance from 3-point range.
They held John Wall, the likely No. 1 overall pick in the upcoming NBA Draft, to only seven-of-18 shooting from the field. Wall, considered the nation’s best point guard, committed as many turnovers (five) as he had assists.
“The 1-3-1 bothered us,” said UK head coach John Calipari, who fell to 1-8 all-time against his Mountaineer counterpart, Bob Huggins. “We tried different things, and it bothered us more than I thought it would.”
That defensive effort kept WVU in the game early in a sluggish first half, before Huggins’ squad started raining in 3-pointers. Improbably, they led at halftime 28-26 despite being outrebounded 29-13 in the first 20 minutes and not scoring a single basket from 2-point range.
They made up for those deficiencies by doing their best to impersonate former coach John Beilein’s 2005 squad, which advanced to the regional finals on the strength of several dead-eye perimeter shooters before falling to the Wildcats’ in-state rival, Louisville, in overtime.
West Virginia (31-6) made eight 3-pointers in the first half (four of which came from Da’Sean Butler) to overcome its complete lack of ability to generate offense in the lane against a veritable army of big men and shot-blockers.
But things opened up in the second half, when the East region’s Most Outstanding Player, Joe Mazzulla, began slicing through UK’s defense like a hot knife through butter.
His driving lay-up with 18:07 left in the game was the Mountaineers’ first field goal that was not a 3-pointer. It opened the proverbial floodgates, as the fourth-year junior scored 14 of his 17 points in the second half and frustrated Kentucky by breaking down its defenses with dribble penetration.
He also did yeomen’s work on the defensive end, frustrating the Wildcats’ star forward DeMarcus Cousins at the back of the 1-3-1 zone.
“He was physical. He was tough,” said UK junior forward and Mountain State native Patrick Patterson. “[He was] doing whatever he could do as a defensive player to stop us from scoring down low. He was successful with that.”
“The way we played defensively, we made it very difficult for them to see open cutters and just make plays in general,” said Butler.
So despite the 11-point lead West Virginia held in the final minutes, there were some tense moments when Mazzulla was disqualified from the contest with 2:21 to go, picking up his fifth personal foul on a quick whistle as he fought for a loose ball with the Wildcats’ DeAndre Liggins.
Facing an aggressive full-court pressure defense from that point forward, the Mountaineers struggled to advance the ball at times and missed some critical free throws.
That allowed their opponents to get within four points at 70-66 when Darnell Dodson hit a trifecta with 25 seconds to go.
But after Kevin Jones made a free throw to get the advantage back up to five, Dodson airballed another 3-pointer and Devin Ebanks grabbed the loose ball, was fouled and made both free throws to put any thoughts of a miraculous comeback to rest.
It was Ebanks who grabbed the ball just before time ran out and threw it high into the air at the Carrier Dome before jumping up on a press row table as a wild celebration ensued on the floor.
But Huggins, the team’s head coach, briefly put a damper on the enthusiasm by reminding the horde of West Virginia fans in attendance and his team, on a podium to accept the East regional championship trophy, that their work was not done.
He quickly proclaimed there were two more games left to win before the Mountaineers could claim their ultimate prize -- a national championship.
On the dry-erase board in the team’s locker room, Huggins had written one message to his team. The “80” scrawled in large numerals was to remind his players they had to play hard for that many more minutes if they hoped to be called champions.
“That’s just the attitude that Huggs has instilled in us,” said Mazzulla. “He told us in the locker room not to be complacent. We didn’t come here to make it to the Final Four and lay it down. We just have to enjoy it the rest of the night and have the mindset that we have 80 minutes left to really do something special.”
“We can enjoy it. But we don’t want to lose track of what our main goal is.”
It didn’t seem like WVU would get a chance to complete that goal early, as Kentucky seemed dominant. The top-seed in the region (and, in the minds of many, the odds-on favorite to win a national title) jumped out to a 16-9 lead on the strength of a 14-3 run.
But the Mountaineers did their best to one-up the program’s 2005 squad, which bombarded UK’s cross-state rival Louisville from 3-point range in the first half of their regional final in Albuquerque, N.M.
They went on a 16-4 run of their own, canning five 3-pointers in the process, to take a 25-20 lead.
By the time the final horn sounded on a frenetic 20 minutes of basketball, WVU had hit eight of its 14 shots from 3-point range. That helped overcome the squad’s complete inability to score inside, as players combined to miss all 17 of their shots from inside the arc.
“Although they weren’t hitting 2-point field goals for a certain amount of time, they were hitting 3-point field goals,” said Patterson. “They still found a way to score. But if anyone had told me that [WVU would go that long without a 2-pointer], I would have figured we would have won.”
On the other side, things couldn’t have been more different.
The favored Wildcats had their way with West Virginia inside, hitting 10 of 20 shots from 2-point range. They had an 18-0 edge in points in the paint at the half, and used 10 offensive rebounds (and a 29-13 overall edge on the boards) to register an 8-1 advantage in second-chance points.
But as inept as the Mountaineers were inside, UK was equally futile from the perimeter.
Its players combined to miss all eight of their 3-point attempts. WVU’s defense also managed to force 10 turnovers in the opening half (including three apiece from Kentucky stars John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins), and it turned those into a 13-0 edge in points off turnovers.
Combined with some miraculous shots from Butler, who hit four-of-five from beyond the arc, (converting a 4-point play when Wall fouled the senior swingman on his final trifecta of the half) and even Mazzulla, who hit his first 3-pointer since Nov. 28, 2008, that gave West Virginia just enough offense to lead 28-26 at the intermission.
Butler led his team with 18 points. He was four-of-eight from beyond the arc and missed all seven of his shots from 2-point range. Mazzulla had 17 points, three assists and two steals, playing 30 minutes in his first game as a starter since Dec. 9, 2008.
Jones had 13 points, eight rebounds and two blocks, while Ebanks had 12 points and seven boards.
For Kentucky (35-3), Wall had 19 points but was limited to seven-of-18 shooting and had five turnovers. Cousins had 15 points and eight boards, but also had five turnovers. No other Wildcats player reached double figures.
For Huggins, it will be only his second trip to the Final Four, and his first since 1992. It was a long road for one of college basketball’s elite coaches, but he finds himself back in the national semifinals 18 years later.
“[Before the season], I thought we had a chance [to do this], in all honesty,” said Huggins.
“The one thing we can always hang out hat on is they’re going to try to do the best they possibly can. It certainly took awhile for us to find our roles.”
“It certainly took a while for us to get to where we needed to be defensively -- probably longer than what I expected. But I’d go in the locker room and say, ‘You know, I’m not very happy with this or this or this, but the reality is, we just won our [31st] game or whatever it is. We’re going to keep trying to win a few more here.”