Some clutch plays in the final minute and half on both ends of the court, rarely seen last season in so many close losses, was the difference to lead No. 22 Notre Dame to a 61-58 victory over the No. 21 Mountaineers. The win moves the Irish to 14-2 overall and 2-1 in the Big East. They'll next play Seton Hall on Sunday at the Joyce Center. Tip-off is at 2 p.m. West Virginia earned their first defeat of league play to drop to 3-1 in the conference and 13-2 overall to snap their eight-game winning streak.
The bigger picture: a loss to the Mountaineers would have put Notre Dame at 1-2 in the Big East and two and a half games behind West Virginia in the standings. These two teams don't play each other again so the Irish control the early tiebreaker. Also, after an 18-point road loss to Georgetown, it was a question of how the team would respond to the first sign of adversity. Notre Dame regrouped in a short time period and got back on track in conference play.
"A league win is a great win," head coach Mike Brey said. "I thought overall we were really good defensively and that was key for us. It was especially the case in the first half when we didn't let them get going from the three-point line. They do everything better when they hit a bunch of threes throughout the game. We didn't let them do that in the first half."
It wasn't without a heart stopping final few minutes. The gritty Mountaineers showed they weren't going to quit. Down ten points with four minutes remaining, West Virginia did not want to give up first place in the Big East. Alex Ruoff's three-pointer cut the lead to 55-48. After a Notre Dame missed shot, a tip-in basket by Da'Sean Butler narrowed the Irish advantage to 55-50. Another long distance shot from behind the arc, this time from Darris Nichols, made it 55-53 with under two minutes remaining.
That's when Notre Dame put its foot down. Two great defensive plays by the Irish sparked scores on the offensive end. A steal by freshman Tory Jackson led to Luke Harangody hitting two free throws to make it 57-53. A block on the ensuing West Virginia possession by Colin Falls gave Russell Carter a chance to ice the contest with a driving basket from the right side to give Notre Dame a 59-53 lead and the ballgame. The Mountaineers actually had a chance to tie the contest up at the buzzer but Frank Young could not get a shot off before the horn sounded.
"2-1 in the league," Brey repeated. "If you told me at Christmas break we would be 2-1 in the league without our starting point guard, I would have signed up for that. We need a little rest before we get back to practice Thursday."
After a back-and-forth 18 minutes to start the game, it was a contest full of runs. The Irish ended the first half on a 7-0 spurt to push a 24-21 lead to a 31-21 halftime advantage. The major reason for the 10-point lead was the Notre Dame defense. They held West Virginia to 32 percent shooting before intermission and 37 percent for the contest. The Mountaineers hit 2-of-8 from three-point land before halftime and 10-of-26 in the game.
"We've played one true road game away from the Coliseum," West Virginia head coach John Beilein said. "We were getting used to a team that was taller and getting up into us. We're quicker than we've been but they came out on us early. Maybe we shot some too deep and got into some rush situations where we didn't go into our automatics."
Two quick baskets in the second half opened the advantage to 35-21 before the Mountaineers pioneered their own run. A quick 8-0 spurt cut the deficit to 35-29. But when Notre Dame needed a basket, they turned to No. 43 and he usually delivered with a dunk.
When didn't Carter dunk the basketball? The senior guard opened the game with two throw downs to quickly give the Irish a 4-0 lead. Carter delivered once more right before the halftime buzzer on an alley oop from Jonathan Peoples. When he wanted to get to the hoop and shoot the highest percentage shot on the court, Carter used his athleticism and strength to do just that, dunking the ball six times on Tuesday. It was quite the aerial display. Notre Dame's leading scorer on the season ended the game with 19 points.
"I give him credit as to where he could do damage," Brey said. "Cutting, getting to the hole and you have to give our guys credit. We have good passers and can find open people and found him to finish. That's a good example of Russ's basketball IQ, which has improved throughout his career here. Not just stay out there and be pissed because he's missing jump shots but go in and do something. That's a smart basketball player."
Carter had some help. West Virginia came into the game holding teams to 25 percent shooting from three-point land. Falls personally made them pay. The senior guard scored 14 points, including 4-of-7 from behind the arc. Just like the team did, Falls rebounded nicely from a 1-for-7 performance in the loss at Georgetown with some clutch outside shooting. Rob Kurz contributed eight points but a game-high 11 rebounds. The two freshman point guards, Jackson and Peoples, combined for nine assists and only three turnovers.
WEST VIRGINIA 58
Alexander 4-11, 0-0 9; Young 4-14, 1-2 13; Ruoff 6-12, 1-1 14; Summers 1-4, 0-4 2; Nicholas 3-10, 0-0 8; Butler 4-7, 0-0 9; Mazzulla 0-1, 0-0 0; Bawinkel 0-1, 0-0 0; Smalligan 1-1, 0-0 3; Totals: 23-61, 2-7 58.
NOTRE DAME 61
Kurz 2-4, 4-7 8; Zeller 1-2, 0-0 2; Jackson 0-2, 0-0 0; Falls 5-8, 0-1 14; Carter 8-17, 3-4 19; Peoples 1-1, 0-0 2; Hillesland 1-1, 0-0 2; Ayers 1-1, 0-0 3; Harangody 4-7, 3-4 11; Totals: 23-43, 10-16 61.