Mark Story: Liggins clamps down on Big Blue nemesis

Defensive specialist clamps down on big Blue nemesis

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 20, 2011 

TAMPA, Fla. — Three hundred and fifty-seven days later, Kentucky was trapped in the "Mazzulla nightmare" all over again.

Joe Mazzulla, the unheralded West Virginia guard who sliced and diced UK for 17 points in the Mountaineers' Elite Eight upset of top-seeded Kentucky in 2010, was doing it again.

The crafty left-handed senior — only a 7.3 point-a-game scorer on the season — was on his way to a 15-point first half Saturday in UK's NCAA Tournament round of 32 grudge rematch with Bob Huggins' crew.

Just before the Mountaineers left the St. Petersburg Times Forum court with a 41-33 halftime lead, foul-plagued Kentucky starters Doron Lamb and Josh Harrellson had a head-shaking conversation on the Wildcats bench.

"Isn't (Mazzulla) the guy who killed you all last year?" Lamb, the freshman, asked his senior teammate.

Said Harrellson later: "I looked at Doron and just said, 'Yeah, he killed us last year and he's doing it again.' "

That is, right up until DeAndre Liggins made Kentucky's "Mazzulla nightmare" stop.

With the long-limbed Liggins harnessing the 6-foot-2 WVU guard and helping hold him to five points in the second half, Kentucky rallied for a bruising 71-63 victory over the Mountaineers.

"In the first half, Mazzulla did whatever he wanted. All he did was shoot uncontested layups," Liggins said. "In the second half, I said, 'I will do whatever it takes to make it hard for him.' "

In advancing to the NCAA round of 16 for the second straight year, Kentucky heroes were plentiful. Brandon Knight found his shot and scored 30 points. Terrence Jones bounced back from a slow start to record a double-double (12 points, 10 rebounds). Harrellson (15 points, eight boards) continued his personal feel-good tour with another gutty, productive performance.

Yet the UK MVP may well have been Liggins. You can watch a heaping helping of basketball and you'll rarely see a guy score three points yet have as dramatic an impact on a game as DeAndre Liggins did Saturday.

The 6-foot-6 junior from Chicago came out of the locker room at halftime determined to force the southpaw Mazzulla to his right.

It worked.

With Mazzulla's magic contained, West Virginia couldn't score. The Mountaineers went 6:13 into the second half before Mazzulla finally tallied another layup. By that time, their eight-point halftime lead was all gone. UK led 44-43.

Mazzulla's only other second-half field goal came with 9:32 left.

"I couldn't finish over him in the lane," Mazzulla said of Liggins. "He did a great job contesting shots. Obviously, if you try to pull up for a three, he's right in your face."

Even after Mazzulla was in hand, Liggins' work was far from done.

When West Virginia long-range bomber Casey Mitchell came off the bench to score six quick points and help rally the Mountaineers to a 55-51 lead with 7:37 left, Liggins switched over to him.

Mitchell didn't score again until a meaningless trey with 13 seconds to go.

"They didn't put me on him," Liggins said of the Kentucky coaches. "I just said, 'I want to guard him.' Which I did."

Said Kentucky forward Darius Miller: "I don't know how 'Dre does it. It seems no matter who we put him on, he slows them down or shuts them down."

On Friday night, Liggins said he went without sleep. "I wanted this so bad," he said of victory over West Virginia.

Once the game started, he played like his scholarship — and all his street cred — were on the line. Against a West Virginia team that rarely loses (83-12 under Huggins) when it outrebounds its foe, No. 34 grabbed nine boards to help UK win that battle 34-30.

"If he rebounds, we're pretty tough to beat," John Calipari said of Liggins.

With West Virginia down four and fighting for its life late, Liggins stood in against a driving Mazzulla and took a charge with 3:16 left. Kentucky's lead was 61-56 when WVU three-point specialist Jonnie West rose for a corner trey.

Liggins blocked it.

With 39 seconds left, Liggins even led cheers, exhorting the Kentucky segment of the crowd for more noise.

Most of all, when the "Mazzulla nightmare 2.0" was in full force, DeAndre Liggins at long last ended UK's bad dream.

Said Mazzulla: "He did a great job on me."

To Kentucky ears, few sweeter words will ever be spoken.

Reach Mark Story at (859) 231-3230 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3230, or mstory@herald-leader.com. Your e-mail could appear on the blog Read Mark Story's E-mail at Kentucky.com.

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