MORGANTOWN - For a couple of guys who first played against each other as collegians way back in 2007, Joe Mazzulla and Ben Hansbrough don't exactly have a long history.
That first meeting seems now as if it was from a different era. Hansbrough at the time was a freshman reserve at Mississippi State, Mazzulla the same at West Virginia. The Mountaineers beat the Bulldogs 63-62 in the semifinals of the NIT at Madison Square Garden on Darris Nichols' last-second 3-pointer.
That Mazzulla and Hansbrough combined to play 26 minutes and score three points that night has, understandably, been lost to history.
Since then, between Hansbrough's transfer to Notre Dame and Mazzulla's redshirt year because of a shoulder injury, the two have faced one another just three more times. Neither of the first two was particularly memorable from a personal-battle standpoint - Notre Dame's two-point win in South Bend and WVU's one-point victory in the Big East tournament semifinals, both last season.
But then there was Saturday, when Hansbrough tried to single-handedly rescue the No. 8 Irish against West Virginia (17-9, 8-6 Big East) at the Coliseum. And Mazzulla chased him all over the floor in an effort to prevent him from doing so.
"Every possession was a battle between him and I,'' Mazzulla said. "And because of how hard we had to play against each other, we kind of gained more respect for each other throughout the game.''
Enough, in fact, that when Hansbrough fouled out trying to defend a Truck Bryant drive to the basket with 21/2 minutes to play, he made it a point to veer toward Mazzulla as he walked off the floor.
West Virginia's student section actually had to temporarily halt its "Left, right, left, right'' chant as Hansbrough walked to the bench, then stopped dead in his tracks and said something to Mazzulla and the two hugged.
"I said, 'Good game,' and he gave me a hug and said, 'Congratulations and good game,'" Mazzulla said later, after West Virginia had secured a 72-58 win over the Irish. "Then he said we were two of the toughest guys in the conference.
"But I jokingly, somewhat, said, 'Well, I'll take No. 1 and I'll give you a close second.'"
Indeed, the two waged a battle that was equal parts talent vs. talent and grit vs. grit.
Hansbrough, who continues to make a strong case for player of the year votes in the Big East, finished his afternoon with 19 points, two assists, two steals and seven rebounds. With Mazzulla fighting through screens all day to chase him down, though, the 6-foot-3 senior was just 7-for-18 from the floor and missed four of his seven 3-point tries.