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March 22, 2008
WASHINGTON, D.C. - West Virginia leaned on star Joe Alexander to get to the NCAA Tournament. Now that the Mountaineers are here, they are proving to be a well-rounded team with numerous weapons - one of which doesn't even start.
Alexander scored a game-high 22 points in seventh-seeded West Virginia's 73-67 triumph over second-seeded Duke (28-6) on Saturday afternoon in a second-round matchup in front of a near-capacity crowd at the Verizon Center. But it was the Mountaineers' little-known sixth man who proved to be the best player on the court.
Sophomore guard Joe Mazzulla came off the bench and nearly had a triple-double, scoring 13 points, grabbing 11 rebounds and dishing out eight assists in what was easily the best performance of his career.
"Joe was our MVP," West Virginia center Jamie Smalligan said. "He was awesome."
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski went one step further. "He was better than (West Virginia coach) Bobby (Huggins) thought or else he would have been starting," Krzyzewski said. "He was the real story. He was like a mini-Jason Kidd out there. For someone not to start and have that kind of game in the NCAA Tournament is remarkable."
Seven of Mazzulla's points, eight of his rebounds and five of his assists came in a second half where the Mountaineers (26-10) outscored the Blue Devils 44-33.
West Virginia guard Alex Ruoff, who scored 15 of his 17 points in the second half, hit a number of clutch shots for the second consecutive game (Ruoff hit five 3-pointers and scored 21 points in a first-round win over Arizona). Ruoff made the play of the game Saturday when he nailed a desperation 3-pointer from the right corner as the shot clock buzzer sounded to tie the score at 37 with 15:10 left. WVU took a 39-38 lead on its next possession when Mazzula found Alexander under the basket for an easy layup, and the Mountaineers never trailed again.
West Virginia now must be considered one of the biggest surprises of the season and one of the more successful programs in recent years. The Mountaineers, picked to finish 10th in the Big East in Huggins' first season, are making their third trip to the Sweet 16 in the past four seasons. They won the NIT in 2007.
Meanwhile, Duke's loss makes it the first time Duke has failed to advance past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament in back-to-back seasons since 1995 and '96. Virginia Commonwealth knocked Duke out of the first round last season and the Blue Devils were fortunate to avoid the same fate this season. Duke needed a layup in the final seconds to edge Belmont 71-70 on Thursday night.
Much of the blame must fall on their best player. Senior guard DeMarcus Nelson played nothing like a first-team All-ACC team selection in the NCAA Tournament, going 2-for-11 from the field and scoring six points against WVU and 1-for-6 from the floor with a season-low two points against Belmont.
Andrew Skwara is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.