Notre Dame led all of NCAA Division I men’s basketball in the fewest turnovers committed per game (9.3), while West Virginia topped the D-I ranks by a wide margin in most turnovers forced per game (20.9). On Saturday in Buffalo, the contrasting styles clashed in the second round of the NCAA Tournament with a spot in the Sweet 16 on the line. And while the Fighting Irish, who finished with 14 turnovers, weren’t exactly Manhattan, which had 40 turnovers against WVU earlier this season, it was still a matter of the Mountaineers’ imposing their defensive will in the 83-71 victory, sending Bob Huggins’ club on to its fourth Sweet 16 berth in his 10 seasons coaching his alma mater.
“We just wanted to wear them down,” explained Huggins, whose club improved to 28-8 with the victory over Notre Dame. “We wanted to make them work really hard at advancing the ball. They shoot the ball so well, 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. So we were a little bit concerned about that. I didn't want to turn them loose. I thought against Bucknell (in Thursday’s opening round victory), we did a horrible job of stopping the ball, and so they constantly were attacking the rim. 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.”
The Irish ended up shooting a bunch of threes, as they were 10-of-28 from beyond the arc. But they were also only 12-of-26 from two-point range and managed just 16 points in the paint. Notre Dame wound up with 14 turnovers, which isn’t a horrible number against “Press” Virginia, as only five Mountaineer foes had less this season. But WVU’s defense sped up the pace beyond the Irish’s liking and forced ND to rush – and miss – a number of open shots.
“I think that's the goal of the press,” noted Notre Dame senior guard Steve Vasturia. “They obviously want to turn you over. If not, they want to get you out of your rhythm. Besides our start (when WVU opened a 10-0 lead), I thought we did a pretty good job. We got a bunch of good looks. We did a good job getting the ball across half court. But you have to knock down open shots once you get it across half court, and we didn't make enough of those today."
West Virginia did force 10 first-half turnovers, and scored 11 points off them, to spur a 42-35 lead at the break. Notre Dame settled down and committed just four turnovers in the second half, but WVU’s pressure continued to wear on the Irish, who made just 12-of-31 shots in the final 20 minutes. That figure included Bonzie Colson’s 7-of-8 second half shooting, as ND’s junior forward almost personally kept Notre Dame in the contest, scoring 18 of his game-high 27 points in the after halftime. That was 50 percent of the Irish’s second-half point total, as Colson’s teammates made only 5-of-23 shots in that 20-minute stretch.
“We wanted to take them out of everything they run,” explained WVU junior forward Elijah Macon, who had 11 points and four rebounds. “Watching their film and everything, you have to take them out of their offense. I feel like if we took them out of their offense, it would be really hard for them to score. And I feel like we did a really good job of that. That was the plan. If (the traps were) available, we would trap it. If not, we were going to let the guards guard them one-on-one. “I feel like between me, Brandon (Watkins) and Sags (Sagaba Konate), keeping us in rotation, I feel like that was going to wear them down regardless,” added Macon of WVU’s three-headed center. “Nate (Adrian) being Nate and Esa (Ahmad) being bigger than their guards, I feel like we had a big advantage. Get to the rack when they shot it and go rebound.”
So, while “Press” Virginia didn’t actually turn Notre Dame over an inordinate number of times, the cumulative effects still were a huge factor in securing the Mountaineer victory. “The shots we got were pretty good ones,” said Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey, who lost for just the sixth time in his 20 meetings with his old Big East rival. “We had a little runner in the lane, V.J. (Beachem) with a 10-footer on the baseline. I think we were awake and ready to play. We weren't turning the ball over at that time to give them the 10-0 lead. I think it was, you know, missing some stuff.
“We may have been shocked we were so open because we were really prepared for them to be after us, and they were,” continued Brey. “You know, we had our spurts of turning the ball over, but 14 against them is … that's a pretty good day with only four in the second half. But you got to make some shots. You’ve got to make a few over the top of it. And then on top of that, I didn't expect West Virginia to shoot it from outside as well they did. I thought we could play a little more zone and make them make more threes. But they made every big three-point shot; (Jevon) Carter is a big-time winner. What a stud guard he is. He's fabulous. He's just a veteran winner in college basketball.”
While the Irish may survived in the backcourt against West Virginia’s press, the Mountaineer defense still ultimately slowed down the Notre Dame offense, allowing WVU to move on to next Thursday’s Sweet 16 in San Jose.