Mountaineers' climb comes up a little short

INDIANAPOLIS -- The climb is over.

While historic heights were reached, there will be no NCAA basketball championship for the West Virginia University Mountaineers.

After reaching its second Final Four in program history -- joining a trip made in 1959 when they lost in the title game -- West Virginia fell, 78-57, Saturday night against Duke in the national semifinal in front of more than 71,000 fans at Lucas Oil Stadium.

The Blue Devils advance to Monday's title game to face Butler University, the hometown darling of this weekend, with its campus just about six miles from the stadium in downtown Indianapolis.

West Virginia's hopes were dashed for good when the team's leader, senior swingman Da'Sean Butler, left the floor the way he never envisioned.

Butler went down with what appeared to be a serious knee injury with 8:59 remaining and his team down, 63-48. Coach Bob Huggins ran onto the floor to comfort Butler as he writhed in pain, then a few teammates were summoned from the bench to help him to his feet and then to a waiting cart that took him to the locker room. He did not return to the game.

"I knew it was bad because Da'Sean's a really tough guy," Huggins said. "When I went out [on the court to Butler], it was more he felt like he let his team down than it was about the injury. And that's Da'Sean. You know, that's the way he is. He's got such a great heart."

The loss ended what was otherwise a remarkable season for the Mountaineers.

It was some ride, one that will go down as one of the most regaled in West Virginia University athletics history.

This team galvanized a state from late-November, when the very first bucket was scored in a non-conference game against Loyola of Maryland, all the way through Saturday night when the final horn blared and some of the players had already been burying their heads in their hands on the bench.

But, in between, this group guided by Huggins, the much-revered coach and a former player at the school, earned their first-ever Big East Conference championship and a school-record 31 victories.

The Mountaineers jetted to an 11-0 record to start the season, hit a bit of a rough patch when they lost three games in five outings, then -- after a loss in Connecticut on Feb. 22 -- got it all together for a dazzling run.

After winning the Big East tournament in New York City, they returned to the Empire State for the first four games of the NCAA tournament -- winning two each in Buffalo and Syracuse.

Then came Saturday night.

West Virginia got itself in trouble early, falling behind, 18-11 midway through the first half -- forcing Huggins to angrily signal for a timeout, summon his team to the bench and give them a noisy dressing down that forced the players to perk up and the coach's face to turn red as a rose.

The Mountaineers responded -- for a little while.

West Virginia was able to cut its deficit to 23-21, but then the Blue Devils surged into halftime, taking a 39-31 lead at the intermission as they knocked in seven 3-pointers.

"They played really, really well," Huggins said. "And I've watched a lot of tape. I haven't seen them play that well. And we didn't play very well. And, you know, that happens."

Inside Lucas Oil Stadium, West Virginia fans were one moment on their feet in exuberance, the next minute shaking their head in despair. Many headed for the exits early.

West Virginia notables were also here -- singer Brad Paisley, from Glen Dale, W.Va., sat in the second row behind the team bench wearing a baseball cap with the school's logo. Nearby, Gov. Joe Manchin sat with the school's president, James P. Clements.

In the end, there was nothing any of them could do. It was Duke's night, and the Blue Devils constructed a mountain no Mountaineer could climb.

Colin Dunlap: or 412-263-1459. First Published April 4, 2010 4:45 AM


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