But West Virginia showed its true colors and didn't back down. They cut the lead to 55-53 on a three-point shot from Darris Nichols. Last year, time after time, Notre Dame was challenged late in contests and consistently folded down the stretch in the most agonizing ways possible.
Not this year. A steal by freshman Tory Jackson led to his classmate, Luke Harangody, coolly sinking two free throws with 1:12 remaining. Then, Falls blocked a shot on the next Mountaineer possession, which led to Russell Carter driving right and hitting a short jumper off the backboard for a 59-53 lead. The ability of West Virginia to hit shots from behind the arc at any point makes it tough for teams to put them away.
"They are a team that lives and dies by the three," Carter said. "We built the lead and all of sudden, they hit two, three and four threes and they're back in the game. It went from double digits to a four point game. They are a tough team and play a lot like us. They can pull away in a hurry or come back in a hurry. We were ready for that and held them off."
"It's tough to put anyone away in college basketball," forward Rob Kurz said. "They are a real good team. The way they can shoot the ball, they're never out of a game. They can chip away so quickly. They got some offensive rebounds and putbacks and kicked out for a three. But we worked hard and got the W. That's all that matters."
The change of play down the stretch was one of the reasons for the 61-58 win over West Virginia on Tuesday. More importantly, it moves Notre Dame to 14-2 on the year and 2-1 in the Big East, now just a half game out of first place. Last year, the Irish were 0-3 through three conference games. A different attitude and some different contributors have made this team a contender in league play.
"I think this group is more physically tough and more mentally tough," head coach Mike Brey said. "It's a more mentally tough team. I hate to compare teams but they are. We have more parts. We can keep fresh big guys in there and active big guys. And we all handle the ball, which is key against that defense. You are going to turn the ball over against those guys but none of them broke our back. We kept attacking and different guys kept making plays."
*When Kyle McAlarney was suspended indefinitely from the team after the Rider victory, it left a void at the point guard position. It wasn't as if Brey didn't have anyone to turn to. He had two freshmen point guards in Jackson and Jonathan Peoples. But both lacked the experience and the three-point shooting ability that McAlarney possessed.
On Tuesday, their combined play was one of the major reasons for the win over the Mountaineers. Jackson and Peoples didn't torch the net. Together, they totaled just two points. But a point guard's No. 1 job is to distribute the basketball and not turn it over. The two freshmen combined for 40 minutes of floor time, dished out nine assists to only three turnovers. That's good for an assist-to-turnover ratio of 3:1.
"I'm real proud of our two freshmen," Brey said. "Those two guys shared the position and took good care of the ball in their third Big East game. They defended well. There was a confident presence from both of them out there, which I wasn't sure we'd get. It's something to build on."
Peoples has been affected by the McAlarney suspension more than anyone. Before the Rider contest, the most minutes he saw on the court were eight in the victory over Army. Since the suspension, he's had to replace some of McAlarney's floor time. Peoples had 13 minutes in the Stony Brook game, eight against Louisville and 11 versus Georgetown. Coming into the Mountaineer game, he had two assists. On Tuesday, the 6-3, 214-pound freshman had three.
"We've been working him in," Brey said of Peoples. "Given the situation we're in, we needed another ball handler behind Tory. The one thing we've always been impressed by is that John Peoples has a good feel for the game. He's good with the ball, a good passer and knows how to play. He's getting to be better a defender. His strength got a couple of turnovers tonight. He still needs to be a better defender and get in shape but he's not afraid."
*Russell Carter might have thought it was a dunk competition on Tuesday. The senior guard threw down six dunks in a variety of manners. A few were of the regular power kind. Another was on an alley oop from Peoples right before halftime. Each and every time Carter split the West Virginia 1-3-1 defense for a power jam, it brought the Joyce Center crowd to their feet. He didn't take all the credit.
"It was great passes from my teammates," Carter said. "The 1-3-1 is a tricky defense to get a hold of. Zach (Hillesland), Tory and Rob really penetrated and probed and gave me easy looks. If I'm that close, I might as well dunk it."