Mazzulla turns in game of his life vs. UK
SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Bob Huggins pulled Joe Mazzulla aside at halftime during West Virginia's game against Cincinnati in the Big East tournament.
Something wasn't right. Mazzulla wasn't being himself. The joy was gone, the assertiveness nowhere to be found in his game.
"I had a very good talk with him,'' Huggins said. "I didn't think he was Joe. He wasn't playing with great enthusiasm. He wasn't aggressive. I told him to be good, you have to be that way.''
Mazzulla, who had been nursing a bruised shoulder all season, went from 11 minutes in that Big East tournament game to 20-plus in each of the next five games. While his minutes were up, his production was still headed south. Save a 4-of-6 outing against Notre Dame, he went the next four games making just three shots.
And then there was Kentucky in the Elite Eight with the Mountaineers desperate for someone other than Da'Sean Butler to emerge as a scorer. With guard Darryl Bryant sidelined for his second consecutive game with a broken right foot, Mazzulla had another shot for stardom.
"I mean, I kind of sat back and looked at four or five NBA prospects, three lottery picks -- what did I have to lose?'' Mazzulla said. "Huggs is the kind of guy that regardless of who you're playing against he gives you all the confidence in the world to go out there and play.''
Mazzulla had three layups during the game that were quite simply demoralizing for Kentucky. The 6-foot-2 redshirt junior guard who was supposed to be the player you didn't need to guard finished with a career-high 17 points in a season-high 30 minutes, making his first 3-pointer of the season in West Virginia's 73-66 victory over Kentucky in the East Regional finals.
To get a sense of how rare it is for Mazzulla to be a double-digit scorer, look at his game-by-game stats. He hadn't scored in double figures since November 2008 and his 17 points more than doubled his season high. In fact, Mazzulla had 12 games in which he didn't even score a point.
"He did a great job of pushing it in transition,'' Wall said. "Instead of us stopping the ball like we had been doing all year, like Coach [John Calipari] taught us, we were running back and chasing the person. He's not a bad player so he's going to take it right to the basket.''
Mazzulla said he started to feel like his shoulder was healed enough about six weeks ago, when he started to take 15- to 17-foot jumpers. But it was a confidence thing for him. He would miss his first shot of a game or practice and shy away from being the aggressor. That wasn't him. Two seasons ago, Mazzulla nearly had a triple-double (13 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists) in a second-round upset of Duke in the NCAA tournament.
"I knew he could do the same thing he did against Duke,'' said Butler. "I knew he could do the same things before he got hurt. In practice he runs this team, brings the energy and has the opportunity to play more minutes.''
The most overblown story of the week was the Bryant injury. For days, the consensus seemed to be that the setback was a crushing blow for the Mountaineers with guard-heavy Washington in the Sweet 16 and then Kentucky's star backcourt in the Elite Eight. But just like the injury to Michigan State's Kalin Lucas ended up being a non-factor in the Spartans' win over Northern Iowa, the Mountaineers made sure that one player going down wasn't a reason for defeat.
"I knew that without me someone was going to step up that wasn't in the starting five,'' said Bryant, who had been averaging 9.3 points a game. "We needed another scorer. Without Joe we would have lost the game.''
But could Bryant predict this kind of production from Mazzulla?
"I was just shocked,'' he answered. "I'm not going to lie. He had a great game at the perfect time.''
Bryant was on crutches in the locker room, his broken foot in a boot. He said he needs surgery to repair the break, but he's going to hold out until after the season. Why? He has been cleared to play in the Final Four.
"I might play the next game,'' Bryant said. "A shoe is being made to take all the pressure off the area. I probably will be able to play in the next game.''
Bryant put the odds of his playing at 90 percent. "I'm looking forward to it," he said. "I can be effective. I'll be fine. It will be like nothing happened.''
Bryant said he's on medication for the pain, and when he's off it, the pain returns. But now he's committed to playing.
Obviously, he'll have to practice so Huggins can see how effective he is on the court. But now he has a full week to test the foot. In the interim, the Mountaineers can expect Mazzulla to be assertive again.
In the national semifinal, West Virginia will play the winner of Sunday's Duke-Baylor game. It doesn't matter for Mazzulla or any other Mountaineer.
"Everybody counted us out,'' West Virginia sophomore Devin Ebanks said. "But win or lose, we were going to give it our all.''
On a Saturday night in Syracuse, no one proved that more than Mazzulla.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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