The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

College Sports

April 4, 2010

Season ends in mountain of pain

Butler tears ACL, Mountaineers fall short of national title

INDIANAPOLIS — The hometown coach takes the hometown team to the Final Four, one game away from breaking a 106-year drought without a championship.

The run by West Virginia drew jaw-dropping support across the state, even down into the coal mines dotting the rugged landscape. To the fans, the coach, the players — they were just like them.

Ownership like that means it’s going to hurt even more when you lose.

Crushing the dreams of an entire state, West Virginia saw its season and its star player collapse in a heap of pain with a 78-57 loss to Duke Saturday night in the NCAA semifinals.

Struggling with their defense and then with their emotions after Da’Sean Butler went down with a knee injury, the Mountaineers faded out of a national spotlight that had missed them for so long.

“This team has meant so much to the entire state of West Virginia,” said West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin III, who had a front-row seat behind the bench at Lucas Oil Stadium. “Win or lose, the people of this state love this team so much.”

What a ride it was.

The return of alum and hometown “Huggy Bear” Bob Huggins as coach three years ago ignited a sports-loving fan base across West Virginia. The state doesn’t have a professional sports team, so the Mountaineers were No. 1, 2, and 3 on the priority list, well ahead of adopted baseball teams in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.

The state’s mostly blue-collar residents identified with Huggins’ straightforward, loyalty-above-everything approach and appreciated the gritty team he put together that was more coal than diamonds.

And when the Mountaineers marched their way to a school-record 31 wins and climbed through the NCAA tournament, March turned into Mountaineer Madness in the Mountain State.

West Virginia signs flapped in the wind in every small town and radio broadcasts of Mountaineers games were broadcast into the coal mines and onto the factory floor so the working-class folks could keep track of THEIR team.

The dream ended with a thud against Duke, and Butler had to be helped off the floor. The school said Sunday that he tore the ACL in his left knee and sprained the medial cruciate ligament, a devastating injury for the senior.

A tough end, but a trip no one in Morgantown is about to forget.

“We had a really great season, it didn’t end the way we wanted,” forward Kevin Jones said. “But I think everyone in the state was proud of us.”

They are because they can identify with this group of overachieving, give-it-their-all players who fought their way through a season that wasn’t always easy.

There was Joe Mazzulla, the hard-nosed point guard. He missed most of last season after shoulder surgery and spent most of this year shooting right-handed because he couldn’t use his left. Mazzulla was the MVP of the East Regional after scoring a career-high 17 points in a win over Kentucky.

Sophomore forward Devin Ebanks missed a few games early in the season, then suffered a hand injury while dunking that affected his shooting touch. He still finished second on the team in scoring, first in rebounding.

High-motor sophomore point guard Darryl “Truck” Bryant broke his foot in practice after the NCAA tournament’s second round and did everything he could to get back, even flying to North Carolina to get fitted for a special insert for his shoe. It didn’t work and it was easy to see how much it ate at him sitting on the bench Saturday night.

Butler was the best player, the leading scorer, the heart of the team. Affable and engaging, he put everyone else above himself and even spent part of last Monday visiting a Mountaineers fan who had a heart attack in the hospital. He was one of only two seniors on the team along with fellow forward Wellington Smith.

When Butler went down against Duke, West Virginia’s players and fans watched in stunned silence as he writhed on the floor and Huggins went out onto the court to console him, cradling his head and stroking his face in one of the most poignant moments of the tournament.

“Through all of it, our guys have done a great job of persevering and working their way through things,” Huggins said. “They’re good guys. They’re guys who put the team and the welfare of others before them. That’s a great character they have.”

West Virginia has been through this kind of heartbreak before.

The Mountaineers had what’s considered the best team in program history in 1958, but the Jerry West-led team lost in the NCAA’s first round to Manhattan. West Virginia and West lost again the next season, in the national championship game to California.

The major football defeats were eerily similar to what happened this season.

In 1988, West Virginia was on the cusp of its first national title, playing Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl. Those hopes ended with an injury to Heisman finalist Major Harris, a star player going down on the big stage just like Butler.

Another chance at a title ended at the 1993 Sugar Bowl, when the 11-0 Mountaineers were routed by Florida in the same fashion Duke overwhelmed West Virginia on Saturday night.

With everything that happened this season and the way it ended, this might have been the toughest loss of all.

“You really can’t put into words how tough this is,” Mazzulla said. “Looking at how we came along through the course of the year and how close we go down the way we did, I can’t explain it.”

Neither can all the people back home.

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