CINCINNATI - Joe Mazzulla said it suddenly dawned on him and a couple of his teammates right before tipoff at Fifth Third Arena Saturday night they would never get another chance to do this for Bob Huggins.
"With about three minutes left in warm-ups, we looked at each other and realized this was the last chance we'd have to win one here for him,'' Mazzulla said. "That really kind of stuck with us throughout the entire game. Every possession where we'd get tired, that's what we thought of.''
And eventually, Mazzulla and the Mountaineers - all seven of them - did just that, giving Huggins his first win as an opposing coach in a building he once called home and in which he still had plenty of supporters among a sellout crowd of 13,176.
Mazzulla and John Flowers scored 16 points each, Kevin Jones found ways to contribute despite being the focus of Cincinnati's defense and the Mountaineers survived wave after wave of Bearcat pressure to beat UC, 66-55, Saturday night.
The win was the third straight for West Virginia coach Bob Huggins over his former team after he suffered two defeats to the Bearcats after he became the coach at his alma mater. The Mountaineers improved to 14-6 overall and 5-3 in the Big East.
Cincinnati, which began the season 15-0, has not been nearly as successful since Big East play began. The Bearcats are now 18-4 overall and 5-4 in the league. Still, they are only one win away from matching last season's victory total.
Much of the credit for the win has to go to Mazzulla, the 6-foot-2 senior who once again took over a game with his drives to the basket. He scored 12 of his 16 points in the second half, added eight assists and seven rebounds and at one point as the Mountaineers were trying to protect a double-digit lead even imposed his will on Huggins.
"That's what I wanted,'' he said of having the ball in his hands at virtually every critical juncture. "At one point I think I even yelled at Huggs, 'Just give me the ball.' ''
It is the second straight game Mazzulla has come up big, but this time in both halves. He scored a career-high 18 points Wednesday in a one-point loss at Louisville and in both games played almost every minute (38 at Louisville and 37 at UC). He had never before played more than 33.
"That's Joe. He has games like that,'' Huggins said. "He's got great will.''
Mazzulla also has found his shooting touch from the free-throw line. The same player who missed freebies time and again at the end of a narrow win over Purdue made 10 of 12 against UC. In fact, since his brickfest at the end of that Jan. 16 Purdue game, he is 19-for-23 from the foul line.
West Virginia needed more than Mazzulla Saturday, though, and got it. The Bearcats made it a point to try to deny Kevin Jones the basketball and the team's leading active scorer - second to the suspended Casey Mitchell overall - didn't take a shot in the first half.
"When they give somebody that much attention, it creates opportunities for other people,'' Huggins said.
At various times Saturday that other person was Mazzulla or Flowers (16 points, eight rebounds, four blocks), Deniz Kilicli (eight first-half points, seven rebounds), and even Cam Thoroughman, who made the last two baskets of the first half as West Virginia took a 33-27 lead.
But Jones also eventually found a niche, too, and down the stretch was big. He finished with eight points, nine rebounds and no turnovers in 38 minutes.
The Mountaineers needed most of that scoring, too, because of Cashmere Wright. The UC guard scored 24 points and was a wrecking crew in the second half as the Bearcats tried to rally from that halftime deficit. They did so, taking a 38-37 lead when Wright scored 10 of UC's first 11 points.
But in a stretch of about four minutes, Mazzulla drew Wright's third and fourth fouls by driving on him and he had to leave the game with 9:51 to play. By the time he returned with 6:10 to play the Bearcats had gone from down 45-42 to trailing 55-43.
It was during that stretch that Mazzulla was at his best, controlling the ball and not allowing Cincinnati to break through. West Virginia went on a 15-2 run, mostly while Wright was out, to take command.
The Mountaineers also had a couple of big advantages by dominating the boards (42-30) and passing the basketball. While WVU had 13 assists on 19 baskets, Cincinnati had just seven assists on 21 field goals, just two in the second half.
The Bearcats also did themselves in with an ugly, out-of-control stretch in the first half.
When West Virginia ran off seven straight points to erase an early 23-17 deficit, UC freshman Justin Jackson elbowed Jones in the head and was not only whistled for a technical but sent to the locker room by coach Mick Cronin. Flowers a few moments later got a breakaway layup on a Cincinnati turnover, then when Cronin called time out and complained, official James Breeding gave him a technical.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickm...@aol.com.
West Virginia 66, Cincinnati 55
West Virginia (14-6, 5-3)
Player FG FT R A P
Cam Thoroughman 2-4 0-0 3 2 4