SYRACUSE - The fat lady didn't sing for Kentucky, but when celebrity fan Ashley Judd sat down looking a little pouty after her Wildcats fell behind West Virginia by 16 with 4:25 left, you knew the NCAA East Regional final was all but over last night at the Carrier Dome.
Kentucky cut it to four points with 25.6 seconds left, but the Mountaineers toughed out a 73-66 victory to advance to the Final Four for the first time since the days of Jerry West back in 1959.
Coach Bob Huggins' team didn't score its first two-point basket until 18:08 was left in the second half, but this was a case of the Wildcats' athleticism losing to West Virginia's mental toughness and experience.
"We grinded it out,'' guard Da'Sean Butler said. "I knew we were going to win. It was a matter of how we were going to do it.''
You would be hard-pressed to draw up a more unlikely route to victory than the one West Virginia took. The Mountaineers (31-6) shot only 38.5 percent from the field but were 10-for-23 from three-point range. Butler had 18 points, Kevin Jones 13 and Devin Ebanks 12.
But it was backup point guard Joe Mazzulla, playing in place of injured Darryl Bryant, who made the difference. He scored 17 points despite an injury to his shooting shoulder that handicapped him all season, and he played rugged defense under the basket in West Virginia's 1-3-1 defense, driving Kentucky freshman center DeMarcus Cousins to distraction.
Cousins had 15 points and eight rebounds but finished the game on the bench next to coach John Calipari because he lost focus. "I think our offensive execution wears teams down,'' Mazzulla said. "When we forced John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins to come off screens and chase us, it gets them tired. I thought the 1-3-1 was a lot more physical than we've played in the past.''
Freshman Wall had 19 points, nine rebounds and five assists before fouling out. Kentucky (35-3) shot 4-for-32 from three-point range, missing its first 20 threes, and made only 16 of 29 foul shots.
Asked if Kentucky's youth showed, coach John Calipari said, "I don't want to have an excuse because they outplayed us. But there were times inexperience hurt us.''
The Wildcats built a 16-9 lead, including eight points from Wall. But the Mountaineers went ahead 21-20 on four straight three-pointers, three of them by Butler.
The most dramatic moment came with 2:50 left in the half when Butler rose for a three-pointer on the left wing and Wall went up with him. If Wall didn't get a piece of the shot, he missed by a paper-thin margin - and then collapsed when it went in as the whistle blew.
Butler exulted, "You can't stop me!'' Then he drained the foul shot for a four-point play and a 25-20 lead.
West Virginia led 28-26 at halftime, having gone 8-for-15 from three-point range and 0-for-16 from two. With 18:08 left in the second half, WVU got its first two-pointer on a drive by Mazzulla.
Kentucky's kids looked totally bewildered as Mazzulla began driving for easy baskets and that 16-point lead at 61-45. Calipari tipped his hat to Mazzulla, saying, "He got some layups that just were back-breaking. He ran their team.''