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Mazzulla gives WVU a shot in the arm

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Mazzulla gives WVU a shot in the arm
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Joe Mazzulla stepped into the point guard spot and scored a career-high 17 points against Kentucky

INDIANAPOLIS – He played the hero in an Elite Eight victory over top-seeded Kentucky when no one thought he would be able to withstand John Wall.

He persevered through a nagging left shoulder injury that forced him to shoot free throws with his right arm.

He cleaned up his act after an off-court incident a year ago that led to his suspension from the team.

So what does West Virginia point guard Joe Mazzulla do for an encore?

He gets the chance to try and counter another star – Duke's Jon Scheyer – when the Mountaineers meet the Blue Devils in a national semifinal game here Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium.

All Mazzulla did against Kentucky and Wall was score a career-high 17 points over 30 minutes. He slashed to the hoop for easy buckets three times. He knocked down his first 3-pointer of the season. Sure, Wall managed 19 points, but he made just 7-of-18 shots and 1-of-5 3-pointers against WVU's 1-3-1 zone. The player of the year candidate turned the ball over five times against the defense, backed by Mazzulla.

"Obviously it gave me a lot of confidence," Mazzulla said. "We did a great job of executing offensively in the second half. We just have to continue our offensive rhythm and continue to lock down on the defensive end."

Wall, considered by many to be the likely No. 1 pick in June's NBA draft, came away impressed.

"I give all the credit to him," Wall said. "He did a great job against us. In transition he found ways to get to the basket. We didn't stop the ball sometimes and he did a good job as a point guard of running his team. He got them into their offense well and he made open shots."

Scheyer, who averages 18.2 points and 4.8 assists, presents a different challenge than Wall. Mazzulla will use his quickness to try to frustrate the Duke standout. He'll also get some help from his teammates.

"It will be a big challenge for sure," Mountaineers shooting guard Da'Sean Butler said. "We will get after it on the defensive end. We can't let any one of them go off and score at will."

During the regular season, Mazzulla averaged only two points over 15 minutes per game. Picking up the slack for the injured Darryl "Truck" Bryant, he was at his best against UK.

It will take more of the same if the Mountaineers hope to advance to Monday's championship game against either Michigan State or Butler.

Duke remembers Mazzulla from an NCAA tournament game two years ago. He was cool, cocky and had 13 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists in an upset of Mike Krzyzewski's squad that brought a Sweet 16 berth. Late in the game, he mocked the Blue Devils on defense, pounding the floor with his palms.

"I didn't intend to be disrespectful," said Mazzulla, a junior. "You just get caught up in the heat of the moment. It was my first time being there. You play with emotion.

"I don't think it matters."

Duke's opinion may differ. But there's no doubt Mazzulla's play could be the deciding factor again.

With Bryant's status still in question – he has a broken right foot – Mazzulla is expected to again be called upon to play major minutes. Bryant has been fitted with a special shoe, but hasn't practiced.

"I'd be shocked if he plays," WVU coach Bob Huggins said. "But stranger things have happened."

Mazzulla initially injured his shoulder seven games into last season. He had risky surgery in February of 2009 to fuse bone to shoulder and missed the rest of the year. He worked hard to regain strength, but for a while was forced to shoot righty. As time passed, he increased the number of shots he could take with his left arm. He still rehabs the shoulder two hours a day.

Mazzulla said the shoulder is completely healed. Huggins is amazed by what he has done.

"It's hard for me to explain to you how hard it was on him," Huggins said of the initial injury. "I don't think the medical staff thought he was going to be able to come back. Everyone we called about it said if he could avoid surgery, he should avoid it at all costs. They've never had a basketball player have that kind of surgery."

Mazzulla almost lost the chance to make such an impression due to an off-court incident at a Morgantown bar last April. He got into an altercation with a female friend at de Lazy Lizard, and was accused of grabbing the woman by the neck. He was frustrated and worried his actions might have cost him his career.

After pleading no contest to a lesser charge of disorderly conduct and being reinstated last August, Mazzulla dedicated himself to never again disappointing those closest to him.

"At the time, I had started to ignore support," Mazzulla said. "Once I accepted help from Huggs and my teammates it became much easier."

Now that he has helped deliver WVU to its first Final Four in 51 years, he is longing for more. The next chapter will be written against Duke and Scheyer, a legendary team and a renowned point guard.

"It meant a lot to pay Huggs back and pay my teammates back for everything they've done," Mazzulla said. "I believed that we could be here because of what Huggs said on day one when he got here, about why he came here. He said he wanted to give his hometown a national championship."

With two more wins and steady play from Mazzulla, it just may happen.