A redemptive road for the Mountaineers
Perseverance pays off as West Virginia beats Georgetown in Big East title game
NEW YORK -- It's only a basketball game, 40 minutes of chucking a ball into a modernized peach basket. It can't cure what ails you. It can't erase mistakes and it can't rewrite the past.
But sometimes, when the stars align and the moment is just right, a basketball game can mean a little bit more.
"I'm standing here, 56 years old and compared to when I was 26, I didn't understand,'' West Virginia assistant coach Billy Hahn said. "I didn't realize everything you have to go through and overcome in your life and when a moment like this finally comes, there aren't words. There just aren't words.''
And then Hahn covered his mouth and blinked hard to make sure the tears stayed tucked in the corner of his eyes.
For West Virginia, a 60-58 victory over Georgetown delivered the first Big East tournament title in program history -- and the school's first league tourney title of any kind since the 1984 Atlantic 10 crown.
But for the players, the coaches, the school and the state, it delivered so much more.
The Mountaineers basketball team is littered with players and coaches who have sped down the path of success only to run full throttle into hurdles and obstacles. There have been arrests and suspensions, injuries and illness, even seemingly career-killing firings.
Yet the fans have never abandoned their players or coaches.
Maybe it's because the citizens of West Virginia get it. They've spent their whole lives ridiculed as rednecks and unrefined lumberjacks, mainly by people who have never even visited the state. Their flagship university? It has earned more distinction nationally as a party school than as a pillar of academic excellence or athletic success.
So when Da'Sean Butler scored yet another buzzer-beater to guarantee a lifetime of free drinks in the state, the sing-along to John Denver's anthem, "Take Me Home, Country Roads," was as much a thumbing of the nose to the rest of the world as it was a statewide celebratory exhale.
"I got so tired of hearing how you can't recruit kids to West Virginia, how you can't win at West Virginia,'' coach Bob Huggins said. "Well, yes you can.''
And as far as the Mountaineers are concerned, the winning doesn't end here. They have set their sights on six more victories and a national championship and believe strongly that when the selection committee unveils its bracket Sunday, it will slide West Virginia to the No. 1 seed line.
"John F. Kennedy said when they asked him to run for vice president because he was young, aristocratic and Catholic, he replied, 'Why settle for second when first is available?''' Huggins said. "That's how we're going about things. That's what's in us.''
I got so tired of hearing how you can't recruit kids to West Virginia, how you can't win at West Virginia. Well, yes you can.” -- WVU coach Bob Huggins
That the beggar-at-the-feast Mountaineers took the title from a program considered a blue blood of the Big East only made it that much sweeter. Georgetown has more conference tournament titles than any program (seven) and is one of the founding fathers of the league.
West Virginia? An interloper invited to join in 1995. A program that had played in the title game only once before.
Before the game, critics argued that the quarterfinal upsets of three of the top four seeds would somehow water down the league final.
Watered down with flaming vodka, perhaps. This was an instant classic, arguably one of the best finals in recent memory.
Hard-fought with an intensity that underlined just how much winning conference tournaments still means to these teams, the game seemed destined to play to the final second from the opening tip.
It didn't disappoint. After inexplicably sending Joe Mazzulla to the foul line for two free throws with 27 seconds left and the game tied at 56, Georgetown's Chris Wright scored on a layup to tie it at 58.
Huggins called a timeout with nine seconds left. Whatever subterfuge he might have planned was useless. Everyone in Madison Square Garden knew where the ball was going.
"We expected them to put the ball into Butler's hands and let him make a play,'' Georgetown coach John Thompson III said.
This season alone, Butler has scored six game winners, including a banked-in, buzzer-beating 3-pointer in the quarterfinals here against Cincinnati.
So when Devin Ebanks got the ball to Butler, everyone, including the senior, knew he would make a play or die trying.
"Oh I was shooting that ball,'' Butler said.
It wasn't as pretty as the shot against Cincy; this one was more of an off-balance, how-did-that-go-in jumper that rattled in with four seconds left.
But it went in, and when Wright came up just short on a length-of-the-court drive to the bucket, the Mountaineers celebrated at midcourt and the roster full of New York and New Jersey kids sang their lungs out to Denver's country road ode.
"This team just has so much character,'' Butler said. "We've worked so hard and overcome so much to get to this point.''
The redemptive road that this championship took begins and ends with Huggins. Run out of Cincinnati, he was thrown a life raft by Kansas State and then chided when he bolted Manhattan, Kan., for his alma mater after only a year.
Huggins has never been a man who cares much about what people think about him. He is the epitome of a grizzled survivor, a no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners coach who has taught his players to think the same way.
"We have one of the hardest, most demanding coaches in the game,'' Mazzulla said. "There are times when we hate him and times when he hates us, but in the end his loyalty and love for us has made us who we are. The way we play is all him.''
The Mountaineers have needed the adoptive hard shell. Almost all of them have been through something, done in by drama and trauma both self-inflicted and fate-driven.
Mazzulla and Darryl Bryant both were suspended in the fall -- Bryant after a traffic incident and Mazzulla following a domestic assault outside of a bar.
For Mazzulla, it was a double-whammy, coming on the heels of his return from what many thought might be a career-ending surgery. The lefty, who was rendered weak by a congenital condition in his left shoulder, spent most of the fall shooting foul shots with his right hand.
Turkish rookie Deniz Kilicli couldn't join the lineup until February, punished by the NCAA for playing on a team in Turkey with a professional player.
Sophomore Devin Ebanks was targeted for Indiana and then had to start his recruitment over amid the Kelvin Sampson firestorm.
Three years ago, Hahn thought his career was over. He was fired at La Salle after two of his players were charged with rape, even though the charges were eventually dismissed. He spent three years as a basketball pariah, unfairly ostracized for the problems at La Salle. Huggins threw him a life raft without question or condition.
Then, a year after he got to West Virginia, his wife, Kathi, was diagnosed with cancer.
She is not alone. Casey Mitchell's mother, Norma, is undergoing chemo to stop the cancer that has spread from her breast.
"It means so much,'' said Mitchell, who was thrilled to have his mother in the stands. "It means so much to all of us.''
Even the hero of the night wasn't born with a silver crossover. Butler was lightly regarded out of high school, an undersized player who seemed best-suited only for John Beilein's system, not for breakout stardom.
"We've all been through something,'' Mazzulla said. "But we stuck together.''
Huggins kept them together, tough-loving them to success and victory.
The good folks of West Virginia, meanwhile, kept them motivated.
"We kind of wanted this for the state first,'' Butler said. "The people there love us so much and support us so much. I definitely know it means the world to them. We have a lot of people depending on us a lot. That was our main concern, not letting our state down.''
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.