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West Va. is the new Kentucky

As the final seconds of West Virginia's defensive masterpiece over Kentucky ticked away, Mountaineers assistant Larry Harrison put his arm around Bob Huggins' neck and said, "We fooled them again."

The Mountaineers' 73-66 victory Saturday night in the Carrier Dome, which secured the school's first trip to the Final Four since Jerry West was a student, was certainly more about defensive intensity than trickery. Still, the outcome will raise an eyebrow or two.

Kentucky was supposed to be too big, too talented and in possession of too many NBA Lottery picks for West Virginia to handle. The Mountaineers were merely cannon fodder for the Wildcats' first national championship since 1998. Now Huggins is no longer the unlucky coach with great ability but only one Final Four appearance. Now he has two. His home state always knew he would come home and lead the university to the promised land and he gave it to the Mountaineers' fans.

"The first day I was there I told them I came back to win a national championship," Huggins said. "I came back to win it for the university, having played there, and for the great people in our state."

The last time Huggins went to the Final Four was in 1992 when he was the coach at Cincinnati. Harrison, who was on the staff with him at Cincy, and another West Virginia assistant, Erik Martin -- who played on that Bearcats Final Four team -- grabbed the game ball afterwards and held it tight.

"I'm speechless about how I feel right now," Martin said. "I'm going to give the ball to someone at the university."

Now the Final Four needs a new favorite. This March is apparently the time when top seeds wilt under the stress of the tournament. Kansas, Syracuse and now Kentucky have left the building and the only one remaining is Duke and there's no guarantee the Blue Devils will be left standing after today.

"I didn't want it to stop," said Kentucky freshman John Wall, who, in all likelihood, played his final collegiate game on Saturday. "I wanted us to make it all the way."

But shooting 34.3 percent for the game will get you eliminated. So will 4 of 32 shooting from three-point range. So will 16 turnovers. So will 16 of 29 free-throw shooting, a percentage that would make any student of the 15-foot experience cringe.

Kentucky's problems were administered by West Virginia's 1-3-1 zone defense. At the start of the game, if Kentucky made its shot, West Virginia played the zone. If not, the Mountaineers shifted to man-to-man. After a while, the Wildcats were bricking everything, so the Mountaineers stayed in the zone.

That put 6-foot-9 Devin Ebanks and his arms, which are as long as a Russian novel, at the point of the zone, where he forced several turnovers.

"They're a long athletic team," Wall said. "They did a great job denying us from getting to the wings."

There was plenty of credit to go around. Start with Da'Sean Butler, the man who started an early rally with timely three-point shooting and scored 18 points. It was Butler hitting the big shots that built a surprising nine-point lead in the second half. Joe Mazzulla, the Most Outstanding Player of the regional, found enough lanes to the basket for 17 points. He pumped confidence into an underdog that set the tone early.

Don't forget Kevin Jones, who pulled down nine boards, and Ebanks, who filled in at the point when Mazzulla went down with fouls. All were needed against the Big Blue.

From the beginning, as soon as John Calipari signed on last spring and brought with him the finest three high school seniors in the land, Kentucky had promises to keep. In the end they couldn't. They were pursued to the wire by resolute West Virginia, bedeviled by their own offensive malfunctions.

For it was West Virginia, the Big East Tournament champions, who helped the league rebound from an embarrassing March.

For Calipari had the horses to win but not the execution.

West Virginia closed the deal. Now the Mountaineers are your new NCAA Tournament favorite. And maybe Huggins has two more tricks up his sleeve.

e-mail: rmckissic@buffnews.com

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