- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 23, 2008

A few minutes before his team tipped off against Duke yesterday at Verizon Center, West Virginia coach Bob Huggins diagrammed a play in locker room. There was nothing to it, really. Huggins just spread out his five players so that one of them — in this instance Joe Mazzulla, his 6-foot-2 backup point guard — could use his quickness off the dribble to get to the basket.

Nobody was more surprised by Huggins’ etchings than Mazzulla, a little-known member of the Mountaineers’ supporting cast. After all, he hadn’t scored in double figures in more than a month and had been relatively quiet in the first-round win over Arizona. The offense revolved around other people — Joe Alexander, Da’Sean Butler, Alex Ruoff — not him.

“I said [to Huggins], ‘Are you sure you know what you’re doing?’ ” Mazzulla said. “Meanwhile, I’m thinking: If I don’t score the first time he calls this play, he’s never going to call it again for the rest of my career.”

Huggins put him in early — with not quite six minutes gone and West Virginia already down 14-4. Immediately, he called the isolation play for Mazzulla. The sophomore penetrated and scored … and a star was born. By the time he was through, he had 13 points, a jaw-dropping 11 rebounds and a game-high eight assists to lift the Mountaineers to a 73-67 victory over the second-seeded Blue Devils and a spot in the Sweet 16.

One of the many beauties of the NCAA tournament is that on any given Saturday, a kid like Joe Mazzulla can become The Story. One minute he’s an obscure bench player who takes his shots where he can find them, the next he’s got Mike Krzyzewski saying he “was fabulous. He looked like a mini-Jason Kidd out there, getting rebounds and assists and points and [showing such] toughness. The star on that court today was number 3. I told him that when we shook hands.”

You’ll have to forgive Mazzulla if he isn’t quite ready to turn pro. This has all happened so fast. It was next year that figured to be his year, after Darris Nichols graduated and more playing time opened up. And being, as he says, “a humble person” — one educated by the good Brothers at Bishop Hendricken outside Providence — he was willing to be patient, to wait his turn.

“I guess I had a good game,” said Mazzulla, who bears a striking resemblance to erstwhile Terp/Wizard Juan Dixon (except that he’s a lefty). “But you don’t realize it in the heat of the moment. You’re too busy worrying about hitting the next free throw.”

While Mazzulla wasn’t realizing what a killer game he was having, Huggins wasn’t realizing what a big-time player he had on his hands. Though let’s give Hugs his due: He did have the prescience to diagram that play for Joe during pregame. What, pray tell, prompted him to do that?

“Duke does as good a job of putting pressure on the ball as anybody,” Huggins said. “They try to take you out of what you want to run. Joe’s our best guy at driving the ball to the goal. So I didn’t know he would play as well as he played, but I thought he had a chance to relieve some of the [defensive] pressure and drive it at the basket just because of his style of play.”

Even with Mazzulla giving them a much-needed jolt, the seventh-seeded Mountaineers still trailed 34-29 at halftime. They were getting the ball inside — much to Krzyzewski’s dismay — but weren’t finishing. When Duke scored the first three points of the second half, Huggins replaced 6-7 forward Wellington Smith with Mazzulla and went with three guards the rest of the way. It was one too many for the Blue Devils.

Soon enough, Mazzulla grabbed a rebound, pushed the ball upcourt and fed Alexander for a 3-pointer. Moments later, he pulled in an offensive rebound and passed to Ruoff for another 3-pointer. Then he found Alexander curling around a screen and hit him for a layup, a foul and a three-point play. (Coach K wasn’t kiddin’ about that Kidd stuff.)

At the end of the sequence, West Virginia had its first lead since the opening minutes — 40-38. Duke pulled even one last time on a pull-up jumper by Jon Scheyer, but then Mazzulla and the Mountaineers went off again. By the two-minute warning they were up by 14 (66-52), and their legion of yellow-shirted fans was in full celebration mode.

As the game wound down, Mazzulla could be seen bending over, trying to catch his breath. He hadn’t played this much (31 minutes) all season — not that he couldn’t have lasted a little longer.

“There were times when I felt like falling on the court and faking a cramp,” he said. “But Coach Huggins gets us in incredible shape. This last month, whenever we ran sprints, if we put our hands on our knees we had to run them all over again. That’s the kind of mental toughness he’s trying to instill in us.”

The kind of toughness that enables a 6-2 guard to get five offensive rebounds — almost as many as the entire Duke team (seven). It was the game of Joe Mazzulla’s life … so far. You get the feeling, though, that there might be a few more like this.

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