Mountaineers stun Kentucky, 73-66
SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Country road, take me home.
Or better yet, Indianapolis.
It’s almost heaven, West Virginia. The Mountaineers are off to the Final Four for the first time since 1959.
Joe Mazzulla scored a career-high 17 points in his first start of the season and West Virginia handled a cold-shooting Kentucky team stocked with future NBA players almost from the opening tip for a 73-66 victory in the East Regional final Saturday.
Mountaineers coach Bob Huggins, back with his alma mater, is in the Final Four for the first time since taking Cincinnati in 1992. It’s an even longer stretch for West Virginia — Jerry West was the star of the team 51 years ago, and not yet a Hall of Famer or NBA logo.
The young Wildcats could have used West’s famous shooting touch in this one. They were awful from 3-point range, missing their first 20 attempts and finishing a stunning 4 of 32 (12.5 percent). DeAndre Liggins finally hit a 3 with 3:29 left to end the drought, but by then it was too late.
West Virginia went the other way, making eight 3s in the first half without a 2-point basket.
It’s been a turbulent time for Huggins since his previous Final Four appearance. He was forced out at Cincinnati, had a heart attack in 2002 and spent a year coaching Kansas State before he found the country roads back to Huntington in 2007.
He couldn’t have imagined at the start of the tournament relying on Mazzulla to take his team to Indianapolis. Mazzulla came off the bench in 35 games this season and averaged 2.2 points — barely worth a mention in most scouting reports.
He dashed uncontested to the rim for several easy baskets. When he was out of the game, he was on all fours in front of the bench slamming the court in encouragement.
West Virginia fans chanted “Final Four! Final Four!” as the players took their spots at halfcourt after the final buzzer. Da’Sean Butler, who scored 18 points, led the Mountaineers in a little Final Four dance and they cupped their ears to the crowd.
“I talked about it being special,” Huggins told the crowd. “Two more and it will be really special.”
They had the stage after Kentucky had the spotlight all season. The Wildcats (35-3), who also went 16 for 29 at the free throw line, were a strong favorite to win their first national championship since 1998 once overall No. 1 seed Kansas went down in the second round.
Instead, a team loaded with NBA-caliber players — John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins among them — is left to wonder how its season ended in a whimper.
Actually, it ended in a clang.
Butler 63, Kansas State 56
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — It’s an easy five-mile drive from the Butler campus to the site of its next game, in downtown Indianapolis. Still, it’s hard to think of many programs that have taken a longer, more unlikely road to the Final Four.
Yes, the boys from Butler did it — defeating Kansas State 63-56 in the West Regional final Saturday to make their trip back home something much bigger than that.
The fifth-seeded Bulldogs, the team that plays in the fieldhouse where “Hoosiers” was filmed, are writing their own underdog story, even if they can’t really be called underdogs anymore.
Gordon Hayward scored 22 points and Shelvin Mack had 16 to help Butler (32-4) win its 24th straight game and become the first school from a true, mid-major conference to make the Final Four since George Mason in 2006 — a trip that also ended in Indianapolis.
“Couldn’t be more excited,” Hayward said.
Trailing almost the entire game, No. 2 Kansas State (29-7) rallied to tie it at 54 with 3:09 remaining. But Butler didn’t fold, it only got better. The Bulldogs scored the next nine points to seal the game before K-State guard Jacob Pullen’s shot at the buzzer dropped — but offered no consolation.
Enrollment at Butler is in the 4,500 range, about 15 of whom have reminded everyone why college basketball captures America’s heart this time every year.