SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- West Virginia was an excellent basketball program under former coach John Beilein, but when he bolted for Michigan after the 2007 season, the school hired one of its own, Bob Huggins, and asked him to take the program to the next level.
Three seasons later, Huggins has delivered as the Mountaineers are headed to their first Final Four since the days that Jerry West called Morgantown his home.
And not surprisingly, it was West Virginia's relentless defense -- a trademark of all of Huggins' teams -- that has led them to the promised land.
The second-seeded Mountaineers earned the trip Saturday when they upset top-seeded Kentucky, 73-66, in the NCAA tournament East Region final before a crowd of 22,497 at the Carrier Dome.
West Virginia (31-6) will play Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis against the winner of the South Region final today between Baylor and Duke. The Mountaineers have not been to the Final Four since 1959, which was West's junior season.
That team, however, didn't win the national championship and that fact isn't lost on the Mountaineers, who celebrated after the victory but went out of their way to let it be known that they are not finished yet.
"This is special," Huggins said to the crowd after the game from the podium set up for the East Region trophy presentation. "But let's win two more and do something really special ... "
West Virginia junior Joe Mazzulla was asked about Huggins' statement to the crowd and he said it only echoed the sentiments of the Mountaineers players.
"That is just the attitude that Huggins has instilled in us, he told us in the locker room after we left the floor, 'Don't be complacent'," Mazzulla said. "The bottom line is we didn't come here just to make it to the Final Four and then lay down.
"We have 80 minutes left of this season to really do something special and we don't want to lose track of that."
Forward Devin Ebanks added, "Our motto has been finish the job, and we all said to each other, don't get happy until it is over. We still have two more wins to go."
Interestingly enough, the Mountaineers, who are generally a hard-nosed, man-to-man defensive team, needed to take a little page out of Beilein's book to win this game as they played almost exclusively out of their 1-3-1 zone.
That's because the Wildcats looked lost against that zone and really struggled to score for long periods of time as the Mountaineers' length and athleticism and ability to guard the basket clearly frustrated Kentucky.
Kentucky coach John Calipari said that the Mountaineers' zone was really a big factor in his team's inability to sustain any runs or consistency on offense.
"The 1-3-1 they ran, they did a great job with it against us," Calipari said. "Their defense was great against us and we just didn't knock down enough shots. We've had other bad shooting nights but we usually we win these kind of games, but that's because we hadn't played anyone quite as good as West Virginia.
"I'm sad and disappointed that we didn't make it further but I'm proud of my kids."
The Wildcats (35-3) certainly didn't make any shots against the zone -- they were 0-for-their-first-20 from the 3-point range and finished 4 for 32 from beyond the stripe.
They were also 16 for 29 (55 percent) from the free-throw line and 20 for 52 from the field overall and Kentucky standout John Wall, though he scored a team-high 19 points, was only 7 for 18 from the field and 1 for 5 from 3-point range.
Offensively, however, the Mountaineers also reached back in time, especially in the first half, as they were held without a 2-point field goal the entire first half but led, 28-26, because they made 8 of 15 from beyond the 3-point line.
The Mountaineers then came out after the intermission and made an 8-0 run to start the half and did it the more traditional way -- by getting to the rim and getting layups and playing to their strength as an offensive basketball team.
That spurt put West Virginia in control of the game and the Mountaineers never looked back as their defense prevented the Wildcats from making a legitimate run.
Huggins said the Mountaineers won what was a war of attrition because it is the kind of game in which they are used to playing.
"I tell the guys all the time we just have to grind them," Huggins said. "And if we can continue to make them run through screens, they get tired and then all of the sudden it opens up [at the rim] for us in the second half. It has all year.
"We're used to playing in close games because that's our style so there isn't ever any panic when these games are close in the second half."
Da'Sean Butler led the Mountaineers with 18 points while Mazzulla scored 17.
Paul Zeise: email@example.com or 412-263-1720 First Published March 28, 2010 4:00 AM