The Mountaineers dismantled a vaunted Notre Dame shooting attack, imposing their physical style on the Irish and in the process disrupting its offense under relentless pressure and man to man defense. The result was an impressive 83-71 second round NCAA Tournament victory that moved the Mountaineers on to the Sweet 16 set next week in San Jose, Calif.
The match-up of premier point guards, alleged to be a toss-up, went heavily to Jevon Carter, who harassed and harried counterpart Matt Farrell, taking the fight out of the Irish and in the process scoring a team-best 24 points in a blistering display. Carter's on-ball defense smothered Farrell, and caused the typically smooth operator into a team-high four turnovers while he managed just eight points.
And it was Carter who stuck the final dagger in when Notre Dame threatened to make one final push late. After Matt Ryan drained a three to pull the Irish within six, Carter answered with a huge step-back trey that ripped through the net and boosted WVU's lead back to nine at 75-66 with 2:35 left. It was elementary from there, the Mountaineers putting on the exclamation points via dunks from Elijah Macon and Dax Miles while advancing past the second round for a second time in three seasons.
"All year we've been telling ourselves that we got the best group of guards in the country, and we truly believe that," Carter said. "So, when it's time for us to play, we go out there and give it our all. We're going to put forth 100 percent and we're going to live and die with it."
So far, these Mountaineers are alive and dancing. Miles added 18 points and dogged defense to Carter's display, while Tarik Phillip hit for 12 points, half of which came on timely threes as West Virginia continually kept Notre Dame from making a major charge. The trio spearheaded an effort that dashed Notre Dame from the Dance for its earliest exit in three years, while West Virginia sets up a potential match-up with top seed Gonzaga in the West Region next Thursday.
"We just wanted to wear them down," WVU head coach Bob Huggins said. "We wanted to make them work really hard at advancing the ball. They shoot the ball so well that if you trap them and you don't do a good job or you don't make the right rotation, they're going to make shots. And so we were a little bit concerned about that. I didn't want to turn them loose and I didn't want Notre Dame to attack the rim. I wanted them, quite frankly, to shoot threes, rather than turn them loose in the pressure."
That they did, Notre Dame taking more than half their shots from three-point range while connecting on 10-of-28 for 35.7 percent. That's right on their season average, but combined with poor shooting from the floor - a product of pressure and offensive disruption - and deficits in rebounding and points in the paint, and the Irish were not only rarely able to threaten West Virginia, but also trailed the entire game after a fast start by the Mountaineers.
"We were in a 10-0 hole and you're kind of digging out against them the whole day," Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey said. "It was hard to get over it. Their style of play is hard to deal with. It wore on us at times. Even though we only turned it over 14 times, four in the second half, it probably caused us to miss some of those open looks. You're going to have to make some open looks after you get it out of the trap, and we probably couldn't make enough of them.
"But they're really good. They're really good. They got the look. They can play for a while. Bob's done an unbelievable job, like reinventing with full-court pressure. It's brilliant and really a unique preparation to try and deal with it."
After the initial surge, the game settled into a battle of wills, each team trying to force its style on the other. But by the halfway mark of the first half, there was a sense that West Virginia was in control. The lead jostled between seven and 10 points for most of the first half, with the Mountaineers checking Notre Dame's pure skill with its physicality. WVU led 42-35 at the break, and that same flow extended into the second half.
The Irish initially cut the lead to four at 48-44, only to watch Phillip and Carter combine for three consecutive three-pointers to push the lead back to double digits at 57-47 with 10 minutes left. That began a seven-minute stretch without a field goal for West Virginia, but with its stifling defense and ability to convert at the line - WVU hit six free throws during the drought - the Mountaineers still carried a 63-56 edge into the last six minutes.
And Esa Ahmad three then pushed the lead to 10, and Notre Dame never got closer than seven points the rest of the way. The Irish got 27 points from Bonzie Colson, who somehow played the final 9:47 with four fouls, but had just one other player in double digits.
"Carter is a big-time winner," Brey said. "What a stud guard he is. He's fabulous. He's just a veteran winner in college basketball."
Ahmad and Elijah Macon finished with 11 points each for West Virginia (28-8), which has its most wins since it reached the Final Four in 2010. WVU also advanced to 4-0 in NCAA Tournament play in Buffalo with its seventh win in a row in the city. The 28 wins are the third-most in school history behind the 2010 team and the 1959 Final Four team.
"We try to make people play the way that kind of the way we want them to play," Huggins said. "It's hard. Can I say this? Listen, I love Buffalo. I came here in '93, World University Games, we won. Played Canisius in '07, and we won. Came here in 2010, and we won two. And we just won two now. I love Buffalo. Anytime you want to invite us to come back, we'll come back."
The 12-point win is the largest for West Virginia in an NCAA Tournament game since a 69-56 victory against Washington in the 2010 Sweet 16. • West Virginia advanced to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2015, for the 10th time in school history and the third under Bob Huggins. • Huggins advanced to the Sweet 16 for the seventh time during his career (four with Cincinnati). • The Mountaineers have also reached the Sweet 16 in seven of their last 11 NCAA Tournament appearances and are 7-1 in their last eight second-round games. • West Virginia improved to 4-0 in NCAA Tournament games in Buffalo – the Mountaineers also went 2-0 in 2010 en route to an appearance in the Final Four. WVU is 13-4 all-time in Buffalo (5-0 in KeyBank Center) and have won seven in a row in the city. • With its 83 points on Saturday, the Mountaineers established a new school record for points in a season with 2,956, breaking the previous mark of 2,884 that was set in 1959 and stood for 58 years. • The Mountaineers’ 28 wins this season rank third in school history – breaking a tie with the 1982 and 2007 squads. WVU is just one win shy of second (29 in 1959) and three short of the school record of 31 in 2010. • West Virginia connected on a season-high 57.1 percent of its 3-point attempts on Saturday (8-of-14). The previous season high was 53.8 percent (7-13) against Texas on March 9. • Jevon Carter recorded one steal on Saturday and moved into solo second place on WVU’s single-season list with 91 this year (breaking a tie with Greg Jones, who had 90 in 1983). He trails just Damian Owens’ record of 97 in 1998 by six. • With his 24 points, Carter also matched his season high (tallying 24 in a game for the third time this season), while topping 20 points in a game for the fifth time this season, including the fourth time in the last 10 games. • West Virginia had five players in score in double figures for the second-straight game and for just the third time this season (the other was in the season opener against Mississippi Valley State). • West Virginia is 8-4 in its last 12 games against nationally-ranked schools.