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Duke crushes West Virginia, will face Butler for title

Photo by Michael Conroy

Photo by Michael Conroy

INDIANAPOLIS -- His nose nearly touching Da'Sean Butler's, Bob Huggins cradled his star player's head, began stroking his face and offered a few calming words -- anything he could to ease some of the agony.

The coach called "Huggy Bear" by those who know him best didn't care about the score. Wasn't worried that his team's best season in 51 years was about to come to a crashing end.

One of his players, the heart and character in this blue-collar bunch of Mountaineers, was lying on the floor, writhing in pain.

Nothing else mattered.

"He said not to worry about it, that I'll be fine," Butler said after West Virginia's 78-57 loss to Duke in the national semifinals Saturday night. "I told him, 'It hurts right now, but if I could get back, I would.' And he told me not to worry about that."

West Virginia's first run to the Final Four since 1959 came to an inglorious finish because its defense, the cog of its state-consuming success this season, had failed.

The injury to Butler made it so much worse.

West Virginia's leading scorer collapsed with 8:59 left in the game after charging into Duke's Brian Zoubek under the Blue Devils' basket. Butler was called for the foul and wound up lying on the floor, twisting in anguish.

A trainer tried to straighten his knee. That only caused him to contort even more. Teammate John Flowers stood above, clapping his hands in encouragement. Butler didn't seem to hear even with 71,000 fans watching mostly in silence.

Then came Huggins.

The coach with the gruff exterior gave a glimpse of his soft side, the one few outside West Virginia recognize, offering encouragement to a senior who's career had just come to an unexpected end.

By the time Butler had been helped off the floor and wheeled off in a golf cart, his pain had turned to stone-faced acceptance as he looked back at Lucas Oil Stadium.

The player who spent part of Monday visiting a heart-attack patient -- and Mountaineers fan in the hospital -- was more at ease after hearing the soft words of his coach.

"When I went out, it was more he felt like he let his team down than it was about the injury," Huggins said. "And that's Da'Sean. That's the way he is. He has such a great heart."

This isn't how the Mountaineers (31-7) or their fervent fans expected this glorious season to end.

With a statewide following that stretched from the tunnels of its famous coal mines all the way to Indianapolis, West Virginia had put together its best season since Jerry West led the Mountaineers to the 1959 national title game.

Huggins, the hometown hero, had molded the Mountaineers in his gritty image, getting them to do the things that weren't always pretty. Sometimes acerbic, sometimes lovable, Huggins was pure West Virginia and the loyal people of his state love him for it.

His team mirrored the blue-collar work ethic of West Virginians, playing defend-the-Alamo defense, scrapping for loose balls, getting their fingernails dirty in the hardwood sense.

And with no professional sports teams -- they have to glom off Pennsylvania and Ohio -- the state rallied around the Mountaineers, the momentum growing with each of the three trips to the NCAA tournament under Huggins.

So as West Virginia's run this season went deeper, so did the attention -- all the way to the bottom of those mines: Worried about lost production, coal mine operators started piping radio broadcasts of games into the mines so workers could keep up with the Mountaineers.

Thousands of fans waited for West Virginia at the airport after the first two weekends of the NCAA tournament and thousands more waited in the cold on campus.

About 12,000 supporters sent the Mountaineers off to Indianapolis and many followed them here, filling the stadium with yellow and black, out-roaring the hometown Butler fans when the Mountaineers arrived and again when they headed to the locker room -- while the Bulldogs were still playing.

The governor even made the trip.

Gov. Joe Manchin III sat in the first row behind West Virginia's bench wearing a black West Virginia sweater with the WV logo on the front.

"They represent this entire state of ours in West Virginia and they mean so much to our state," Manchin said. "Everyone's rooting for them, no matter what part of the state."

But the Mountaineers never really stood much of a chance against the balanced Blue Devils, allowing Duke to get the rim early and unable to get to its shooters all night.

West Virginia allowed Jon Scheyer and Nolan Smith to hit 9 of 18 3-pointers and Duke hit 13 overall on the way to shooting 52 percent. By the time Butler went down, the Mountaineers were already down and close to out.

His injury just made it harder to take.

"Seeing a leader go down like that, it kind of shocked us," West Virginia's Kevin Jones said. "We wanted to keep playing for him -- we just weren't able to get any shots going."