TAMPA, Fla. -- In the first half of Saturday’s East Region third-round game between No. 4 seed Kentucky and No. 5 seed West Virginia, Mountaineers guard Joe Mazzulla was lighting up the Wildcats, just like he did in the Elite Eight a year ago.
Mazzulla, who scored a career-high 17 points in the Mountaineers’ 73-66 upset of UK last year, had 15 points on 5-for-7 shooting in the first half of Saturday’s game.
At that rate, Mazzulla was going to be the most despised opposing player in the Commonwealth since Duke’s Christian Laettner.
“He was getting too many easy, uncontested layups,” Kentucky guard Darius Miller said.
With the Wildcats trailing 41-33 at the half, UK coach John Calipari made an adjustment.
UK junior DeAndre Liggins, a 6-foot-6 defensive stopper, was going to guard Mazzulla in the second half.
“In the first half, we let him do what he wanted,” Liggins said. “He had some uncontested layups. I just wanted to make it tough for him in the second half, which I did.”
With Liggins hounding him, Mazzulla scored only five points after the half, and the Wildcats ran away with a 71-63 victory to advance to next week’s region semifinals in Newark, N.J.
“[Liggins] absolutely [loves to play defense] and that’s what makes him special,” Kentucky assistant Orlando Antigua said. “He’s one of the better defenders in the country. We just told him to stay in front of [Mazzulla] and make it tough on him.”
More than anything else, Antigua said Liggins had to stay in front of Mazzulla.
“You’ve got to move your feet,” Antigua said. “[Mazzulla] is very crafty and a very smart player. He doesn’t beat you with speed; he beats you with his craftiness and angles.”
Mazzulla found it especially difficult in the final few minutes of the game. After UK went ahead 60-56 with less than four minutes to play, Mazzulla missed a layup and was called for a foul. On the Mountaineers’ next possession, UK senior Josh Harrellson and Miller blocked Mazzulla’s shot.
“They played Liggins on Joe, just put a little more size on him,” WVU coach Bob Huggins said. “We just got all balled up again. When we stayed spread, we had a better chance. We didn’t get wide enough. And when you start creeping in, your defense creeps in. They had good help on defense, but we didn’t spread them the way we spread them in the first half.
“We’re just too small not to spread people. We just get swallowed up with size if we don’t spread people.”
Mazzulla had a hard time spreading the floor because Liggins was always in his way.
“I think DeAndre is the best defender in the country,” Harrellson said. “He can guard anybody from one [point guard] through four [power forward] and can guard a couple of big men. He’s always there when you need help and he’s always there to take a charge.”
Kentucky freshman Brandon Knight, who scored a career-high 30 points against the Mountaineers, said Liggins’ intensity inspired his teammates.
Liggins finished with three points on 1-for-2 shooting, but also had nine rebounds, four assists and two blocked shots.
“It was big-time,” Knight said. “It was just as important as Josh’s play and rebounding. His length, his intensity and tenacity spreads to the rest of us.”