PHOENIX – Joe Mazzulla's 10 points, five assists and five rebounds earned Player of the Game honors in West Virginia's 79-75 loss to Xavier in the Sweet 16 here Thursday.
Mazzulla missed a pair of free throws in the final 2:13, but was the lone player to match Xavier's early intensity. WVU fell behind 28-10 largely because the Mountaineers failed to fight through screens, choosing to go underneath instead of over the top. When Mazzulla entered, the open threes began to disappear. After five in the opening nine minutes, the Musketeers made just six the rest of the way.
The slashing point guard also attacked the basket when Joe Alexander fouled out, giving West Virginia its lone legitimate interior threat on offense. While Da'Sean Butler was able to score on a handful of putbacks, no other player came close to attacking the paint – and the pressure defense – like Mazzulla. His hustle and grit boosted West Virginia over a closing stretch in which it won six of its last eight games.
Joe Alexander held WVU close with a series of short jumpers and timely scores. But he missed a free throw that could have ended the game in regulation, and made contact early in overtime to pick up a fifth foul. Add that to his inability to get into Josh Duncan and draw his fifth foul over the final 2-plus minutes of the game, and the performance was somewhat tainted. Still, his team-high 18 points and 10 rebounds are difficult to ignore, and without them West Virginia would not have been close because of its outside struggles. Alexander finished the season scoring in double figures for 15 consecutive games.
Butler once again gets a nod for 16 points and seven rebounds. He slashed some inside and wasn't afraid to challenge around the rim, something even Alexander didn't often do. He also played intelligent defense, staying in the game with four fouls for the final 5:45 of regulation and the entire overtime period. The forward was the definition of opportunistic, often getting the garbage baskets and putbacks for which he is known.
Alex Ruoff's line of 14 points and five rebounds could have significantly been boosted if he could have freed himself beyond the arc. Ruoff missed both of his three-pointers, but gets credit for not forcing any shots. He also drove the lane on occasion, and finished in transition during WVU's rally in the first half. He also showed leadership, often giving instruction during timeouts and breaks in the action, a mental edge that helped West Virginia whether the early onslaught of points.
Finally, head coach Bob Huggins earns what amounts to a season-long honor. The coach molded players designed to fit another system into one that blended parts of his coaching philosophy with what his players did well – namely shoot and protect the basketball. Huggins finishes with the most wins of any first-year West Virginia head coach and took a team predicted to finish 10th in the Big East to a fifth-place finish, the league semifinals and a seven-seed in the NCAA Tournament that led to the Sweet 16 with wins over Arizona and Duke. The memories of now are the glaring X left by a loss to the Musketeers. Once that eases, however, one would be hard pressed to call the season anything but a success.