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WVU basketball: Mazzulla making impact for Mountaineers

CINCINNATI - Joe Mazzulla has played 132 games in his West Virginia basketball career and figured only a few were as thoroughly impactful and impressive as Saturday night's game at  Cincinnati.

"Joe Mazzulla single-handedly won the game for them," Bearcats Coach Mick Cronin said.

The line - 16 points, seven rebounds and eight assists - stands next to only a few other games in Mazzulla's career ... and many of those can be found in the postseason, when the end came with the next loss.

His near triple-double against Duke in 2008 was followed by a loss to Xavier in the NCAA Sweet Sixteen. The emphatic return from injury against Kentucky in the Elite Eight last season was followed by a Final Four loss to the Blue Devils.

In short, Mazzulla never had the opening in which he could string together a series of good games.

Yet in the past two games, Mazzulla set his career-high in scoring with 18 points in a loss at Louisville, and then managed the ball and the Mountaineers in the second half of the 66-55 Big East victory over Cincinnati (18-4, 5-4), the Bearcats' first home loss this season.

WVU (14-6, 5-3) has 10 regular-season games remaining, which means Mazzulla finally has the opportunity to sustain his surge.

"I hope he does," said teammate Cam Thoroughman, a fellow fifth-year senior who's been with Mazzulla from the beginning. "Joe's a great player and he always has been. He's been through a lot with injuries and that causes confidence issues, which I know about myself. But if he gets a little confidence, which he has now, it's amazing what that confidence can do for you."

Kevin Jones remains the team's top offensive player with leading scorer Casey Mitchell indefinitely suspended. John Flowers does more things to fill up the box score and help the Mountaineers.

It's Mazzulla, though, who has taken control the past two games after Mitchell's suspension and Dan Jennings' bizarre voluntary exit left WVU with eight scholarship players.

"The expectations I have for myself have changed," he said.

The next opportunity is Wednesday at home against suddenly dangerous Seton Hall (10-12, 4-6). The Pirates have beaten Syracuse and Providence, which had beaten Louisville and Villanova in back-to-back games.

"It just depends," Mazzulla said. "(Saturday) was my night to lead a team. Seton Hall might be John's night or K.J.'s night. When Casey comes back, obviously we'll look to get him shots because he's our leading scorer. The one thing that keeps me on the floor is I do what I'm asked to do."

The Mountaineers have asked Mazzulla to matter as the roster has been thinned and the team's other point guard, Truck Bryant, has struggled.

Bryant is shooting 17-for-73 (including 6-for-29 from 3-point range) in the past eight games. He hasn't shot better than 30.8 percent in any of those games.

Mazzulla was averaging 5.7 points per game this season and 4.2 per game in his career before racking up the highest two-game point total of his career. After going 4-for-10 from the free-throw line against Purdue, which allowed the Boilermakers to pose a late threat, he's made 19 of 23 and was 10-for-12 against the Bearcats.

Mazzulla was even the center of WVU's offensive approach against the Bearcats. After making two jumpers in the first half, he worked his way around high screens to get to the rim or drive, draw defenders and then make a pass in the second half.

Mazzulla's assist total was the second-highest total of his career - he had 10 against Minnesota this season - and he'd never made or attempted more free throws in his career.

"That's Joe," WVU Coach Bob Huggins said. "He has games like that. He's got a great will and he willed the ball to the goal for us. And once it seemed like he could turn the corner, we ran a lot of stuff for him to try to turn the corner."

The Mountaineers have what Huggins describes as "a hard time scoring," and are No. 10 in the 16-team Big East in scoring average (73.1). The 68.3 points in Big East games ranks ninth. Mazzulla's scoring, though, is variable.

That's not by reputation, but by preference.

"We're not going to start running high ball screens for me every trip down the court," the senior guard said. "That's not the way to go for us. It's a game-to-game thing.

"Maybe when there are 10 minutes left we start running ball screens, but that depends on the game. I'm not going to go out and try to get what I had (Saturday). I need to let things come to me and continue to do what's asked of me."

That entails simply being there for WVU. He only played more than 30 minutes three times in the first 17 games and started just once. He's started the past two games and played 38 and 37 minutes, respectively, and taken a beating along the way.

He was knocked down again and again against Cincinnati, once so hard that his mouthpiece flew out of his mouth and landed several feet away. He required a long ice bath after a similar beating against the Cardinals.

The most he'd played in back-to-back games was 65 minutes - and that was in 2008, before he suffered through the growth plate fracture in his left shoulder that forced him into a medical redshirt in 2009 and a gradual recovery throughout last season.

He hadn't played more than 61 minutes in consecutive games this season, and that was in the first two Big East games.

"It doesn't matter with Joe," Jones said. "He has that toughness, that tenacity about him that even when things aren't going right for the rest of the team, he contributes.

"He does his part, whether that means driving to the basket and getting fouled, blocking a big guy out - somebody twice his size - he does it. He's a determined player, all the way."

Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at mikec@dailymail.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.


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