Huggins close to bringing title home
Even Bob Huggins got choked up.
West Virginia’s native son took the microphone moments after leading his alma mater to its first Final Four in more than 50 years and tried to hide his emotion while the crowd went insane.
"This is special,” he said Saturday night. "But two more will be really special.”
It almost worked, but Huggins was overcome and choked up as the words came out of his mouth.
It was clear what this win over No. 1-seeded Kentucky in the Elite Eight meant to him.
Huggins, 56, had no intention of leaving Kansas State after just one season, but he couldn’t turn down an opportunity to coach West Virginia for the second time.
"It was really difficult to leave Kansas State,” Huggins said following the 73-66 victory over John Calipari’s Wildcats. "But this is why I came back. To try and win a championship for this school and this state.”
Huggins and the Mountaineers are two victories away after a resounding win over a Kentucky team that couldn’t make a shot — from the foul line or beyond the arc.
"We’ve had shooting days like this, but we won anyway because maybe the teams weren’t as good as West Virginia,” Calipari said. "But today that team was just too good for us to shoot like we did.”
Kentucky missed its first 20 shots from long distance and finished 16 of 29 from the free-throw line — which probably gave Calipari deja vu of sorts from his Memphis team that lost to Kansas in the national title game because of misses from the foul line.
Huggins downplays the redemption angle, but this is a guy who was run out of town by his president after a successful 16-year stint at Cincinnati.
He took a year off before Kansas State gave him a second chance.
Then, one year later, West Virginia came calling. Again.
"It just didn’t work out the first time they called,” Huggins said of being asked before John Beilein was hired.
Huggins accepted three years ago and has taken a team filled with Beilein recruits to the Final Four.
The two keys to beating Kentucky on Saturday night were Beilein’s trademark 1-3-1 defense and making shots from the perimeter.
The Mountaineers led 28-26 at the break and did it without a field goal from inside the three-point line.
That was about as improbable as Joe Mazzulla, the Beilein recruit who was told his career was all but over when he elected to have shoulder surgery on Feb. 4, 2009, winning the regional Most Outstanding Player award after scoring 17 points in the victory over John Wall and the Wildcats.
"The doctors told me no basketball player had ever come back from the surgery,” Mazzulla said.
"Joe is a pretty tough kid, though,” Huggins said.
Now Huggins returns to the Final Four for the first time as a participant since the Bearcats shocked everyone in 1992.
But he has no desire to reflect.
"He’ll get emotional, but he’ll do it by himself,” said West Virginia assistant Erik Martin, who played for Huggins on the 1992 Final Four club.
"This is an opportunity to do something special for the people of West Virginia and the school,” Huggins said over and over. "It’s why I came here.”
It’s not BS, either. He means it.
But this group isn’t done. While others picked them apart for their deficiencies, they have used it as motivation.
The Mountaineers ran the table in the Big East tournament and have won 10 straight, with the latest coming against a team that was considered the favorite to cut down the nets on April 5 in Indianapolis after both Kansas and Syracuse had been eliminated.
"Nobody thought we’d win,” West Virginia forward Devin Ebanks said. "Nobody.”
I can’t argue.
Not against a Kentucky team that has four players on its roster who could be shaking hands with David Stern come June in the NBA draft.
The Mountaineers were outmatched in nearly every spot. Well, maybe except on the coaching end — where Huggins held an 8-1 advantage over Calipari entering the game.
But think about this: Wall, the sensational freshman guard who will almost certainly be the No. 1 pick in the draft, against Mazzulla – who was considered a reach when Beilein signed him out of Bishop Hendricken High in Rhode Island.
Mazzulla wasn’t immune to the criticism tossed his way about the team’s weakness at point guard. He could barely lift his shoulder over his head earlier in the season, and the guy who shared his spot, Truck Bryant, broke his foot and couldn’t even play this past weekend.
But Mazzulla proved people wrong.
He made his first three-pointer since Nov. 28, 2008, and put up a career-high in points on Saturday night.
"I guess we’ve got a point guard,” West Virginia reserve Cam Thoroughman said.
And also a chance to cut down another set of nets.