As one of what is likely a slim minority of people who predicted a West Virginia University win over Kentucky in the Elite Eight matchup in my bracket, I can't claim to be surprised when the Mountaineers defeated the Wildcats. I did not, however, predict the win would be with a large 7 point margin; 73-66.
In fact, that score fails to do justice to the Mountaineers' solid win, considering they were up by a dozen points or more several times during the second half. Their biggest lead was by 16 points, 61-45, with 4:25 remaining. The Wildcats spent the last few minutes of the game fouling WVU just to stop the clock so they could catch up. Unfortunately for the Wildcats, their plan backfired as WVU sank foul shot after foul shot.
Maybe it was Mountaineers' Coach, Bobby Huggins', magical tracksuit. Maybe it was WVU's uncanny ability to sink 3-pointers and prevent turnovers or Kentucky's complete lack of ability to do the same. The truth is, West Virginia emerged as the undoubtedly stronger team and the one more deserving of being in the Final Four with their performance in Syracuse Saturday night.
The game began more tentatively for WVU, as they were unable to make a single 2-point basket, going 0 for 16. Kentucky posted an early 16-9 lead. Astoundingly, however, the Mountaineers made eight of fifteen 3-point field goal shots. The 21 points from field goals on top of sinking a high percentage of foul shots kept them in the game and actually put them on top 28-26 going into halftime.
West Virginia barreled full force into the second half and immediately built up a 10-point lead. Kentucky chipped away at the lead and fell further behind from time-to-time throughout the remainder of the game, but never recovered.
The Mountaineers maintained their lead thanks in part to having only 3 turnovers during the game. Kentucky, on the other hand, turned the ball over time and time again. WVU also continued sinking a high percentage of foul shots while Kentucky only went 16 for 29. The quick-on-their-feet Kentucky team out-rebounded WVU 51-36, but it wasn't enough to recover from the other areas in which WVU trumped them.
Huggins also used a 1-3-1 zone to which Kentucky didn't really know how to react. It largely shut the Wildcats out of landing any 3 pointers. Kentucky's team is also young and relatively inexperienced, and just was not able to pull together what they needed for a win against the equally good Mountaineers who were on top of their game Saturday.
The Mountaineers' win was made all the more impressive due to the absence of their starting point guard, Darryl Truck Bryant, because of a broken right foot. He was replaced by Joe Mazzulla who became unlikely hero of the game. Mazzulla only played in 17 games all season up until Saturday night, and had only averaged 2.2 points per game. He played only 11 minutes in the Big East tournament and suffered from a bruised shoulder for much of the season. He posted 17 points Saturday night; a career high for him and an invaluable contribution to the Mountaineers' victory. Bryant is expected to return in time for the next game this Saturday, which will add more depth and strength to WVU's impressive roster.
If Mazzulla was the hero no one saw coming, Da'Sean Butler was the hero the Mountaineers were counting on, and, as usual, he did not disappoint. Butler posted 18 points for WVU, including making 4 of West Virginia's 10 3-pointers.
With their win, WVU advances to their second Final Four appearance in school history. The last time they made it as far was in 1959. They play #1 ranked Duke on Saturday. Duke is the only remaining 1-seed in the tournament after West Virginia (2) knocked out Kentucky (1). WVU is the only remaining Big East team in the tournament after a disappointing showing from fellow division members. The Big East was hailed as the strongest and toughest division all season.