MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — The grueling daily workouts to strengthen a surgically repaired left shoulder now seem worth it for West Virginia's Joe Mazzulla.
Nearly 16 months later, the injury is healed and he's finally pain free.
His timing couldn't be better.
With Darryl "Truck" Bryant out with a broken foot, Mazzulla is the only healthy point guard on the roster and giving the Mountaineers a needed boost entering their first Final Four trip in 51 years.
"It's feeling great now," Mazzulla said Tuesday. "It was a very long road, physically and mentally."
Mazzulla is not only feeling great, he is playing great.
A backup averaging only 15 minutes a game and a little more than two points this season, Mazzulla was the unlikely East Regional MVP. Starting his first game since December 2008, he scored a career-high 17 points in a 73-66 win over Kentucky in the East Regional final to set up a Final Four showdown Saturday night with Duke in Indianapolis.
"He's just now getting healthy," West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said. "What he went through, I don't think he knew — certainly we didn't know — if he'd ever play again. And to go through two hours of rehab everyday and not knowing if you're ever going to play again is hard.
"He's just gotten progressively healthier. And right now he's probably shooting the ball as well as anybody we have."
Mazzulla missed most of the 2008-09 season after undergoing surgery. He was so determined to play through the pain that during the offseason the left-handed junior taught himself to shoot right handed.
"Last year I didn't have any other option," Mazzulla said. "I had to buckle down and do it. It was a matter of telling yourself you can do anything."
Earlier this season he was inserted into games still to help out defensively. On the other end of the court, his shot just wasn't there and at times he tossed up air balls.
"I was very limited," Mazzulla said. "I accepted my role as just being strictly a defensive player."
As his shoulder got stronger, Mazzulla progressed from 50 shots per day to 75, then to 100. He started using his left hand again. But his role remained the same — a contributor off the bench.
"He played two-thirds of the year with one arm," Huggins said. "But he just wanted to be a part of things and I wanted to play him just so he could be a part of things."
Mazzulla's heroics against Kentucky seemed familiar to Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.
It was two years ago that Mazzulla helped knock Duke out of the NCAA tournament in the second round. Krzyzewski doesn't remember much about the game, but he didn't forget the 6-foot-2 Mazzulla, who scored 13 points and set career highs with 11 rebounds and eight assists in the Mountaineers' 73-67 win.
"He had a phenomenal performance against us a couple of years ago, almost a triple double," Krzyzewski said. "They were good then and they're really good now. Mazzulla I think is just one of those really tough competitors. He's a winner. He's going to fight you and I think as a result of that, his skill level isn't given enough credit. He's a good basketball player in addition to being those things."
It was Mazzulla's first 3-pointer of this season that started West Virginia's comeback from a 13-6 deficit against Kentucky. He also made several uncontested layups, had three assists and two steals in a season-high 30 minutes.
Because of legal troubles, Mazzulla almost never got the opporunity to be a hero.
During the summer of 2008, he and teammate Cam Thoroughman were arrested at a Pittsburgh Pirates game. Both pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct and public drunkenness and paid $222 in fines and court costs.
Mazzulla was arrested again in April 2009 stemming from an altercation at a Morgantown bar and was suspended indefinitely. He pleaded no contest last August to a disorderly conduct charge and Huggins reinstated him later that month.
"I was starting from square one," Mazzulla said. "Not only did I have to gain the trust of the coaches, but the trust of my fellow teammates at the same time. It was a difficult transition, but they never gave up on me."
Now Mazzulla and the school are reaping the benefits.