Monday, April 5, 2010

West Virginia, Butler go down in Final Four

Coach Huggins shares a moment with his players near the end of the Final Four game.

On Saturday, I'd bet 90% of people became Mountaineers, if just for the night.

First of all, as a general rule, unless you (or a parent) went to Duke, you hate Duke.

Secondly, everyone loves an underdog. While this season, you couldn't apply that term to WVU, they are a second seed against 1-seed Duke. This was also Duke's 15th Final Four appearance, and its 11th under Coach Mike Krzyzewski. This was WVU's first Final Four appearance since 1959 and only the second in school history. WVU has never before won the NCAA basketball championship, and, it turns out, this year wouldn't be the year either.

Finally, viewers were touched by the moments the Mountaineer team shared with each other and with their coach on Saturday night.

The Final Four West Virginia Mountaineers vs Duke Devils match-up game looked awfully familiar to WVU fans. It was strikingly similar to the West Virginia vs Kentucky Elite Eight game just a week before. Except, in this game, WVU looked like Kentucky and Duke like West Virginia.

Like the Kentucky Wildcats had done facing West Virginia, WVU fell apart against Duke. They played a 1-3-1 zone again, but it failed to work for them as it had before. The Devils penetrated the setup and drove to the basket with little resistance. The Mountaineers were also off their shooting game, going only 6 for 20 from the floor in the second half and ending the game shooting 41.3%. They couldn't replicate their 3-point field goal barrage that earned them so many points a week prior, either.

In fact, the only part of the Mountaineers' game that was on par with their Elite Eight performance was that they were once again out rebounded. West Virginia was shooting one-and-done. Duke, on the other hand, posted a considerable number of points as the result of second-chance shots.

Duke landed 3-pointer after 3-pointer. They ended the game going 53.3% shooting, 29 of 55. Like West Virginia had against Kentucky, Duke started with an early lead that left WVU playing catch-up the rest of the game.

The Devils went up 18-11 and the Mountaineers fought back and cut the lead to two points, 23-21. This was the closest WVU would be tasting victory for the rest of the game. The Mountaineers trailed 39-31 going into halftime.

I anticipated WVU would regroup at the half and come roaring back into the game once play resumed. The second half is when they really pulled ahead against Kentucky, and the last 7 points of the first half of this game were Mountaineers' baskets.

And WVU did close the lead, coming within five points, 43-38. From there, however, it was all downhill for West Virginia. Duke sank three 3-pointers while WVU turned the ball over, leading to a 15-point Duke lead.

Just when Mountaineers' fans thought things couldn't get worse, team star and lead scorer Da'Sean Butler went down - hard - while attempting a shot with 8:59 remaining. He collided with Devils' Brian Zoubek and both fell to the ground. When Zoubek got up, however, Butler continued to lay on the court in pain, clutching his left knee. WVU Coach Bobby Huggins ran to his side, got down on his knees, hugged his player and stroked his face to console him. This was the most endearing, most enduring moment of the game.

The players took a knee and WVU fans took time to pray, looking on helplessly as their best player's chances of walking off the court being okay, and their hopes of winning the game and making the NCAA championship, were simultaneously dashed.

Butler was helped up and taken to the locker room in a golf cart. The Butler incident had me near tears, but I could no longer hold them back when, with a minute and a half remaining, Huggins hugged two of his starting-lineup players to him in a moment where the feeling of "we gave it our all, did our best and we had a heck of a run and I'm proud of you" was tangible.

The Mountaineers lost, 78-57, but what I'll really remember about that game is the moments between Huggins and his players. Those are moments of victory, even in defeat. Those are the reasons, really, that make sports worth playing, no matter which side of the ball you're on. And those are the moments that stay with us, rather than who won or lost, when all is said and done.

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