While much of the attention of West Virginia's win was focused on the Mountaineers' 83 points and excellent shooting, defense was still one of the biggest reasons WVU is moving on to San Jose for the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16. Particularly, it was a lack of something that has been a part of its make-up since the institution of Press Virginia -- fouls.
WVU's aggressive approach on the defensive end has naturally led to a number of those, and although the Mountaineers improved slightly in that area this season, it still ranks 294th out of 347 Division I teams with 20.4 per game. With Notre Dame's prowess in converting from the line a key concern, the Mountaineers had to find a way to keep the Irish from piling up points there. WVU assistant coach Larry Harrison said that foul avoidance was the top priority in preparation for Saturday's second round game.
"We just told them to play with our hands out," Harrison said. "A lot of times when we are guarding our hands are in and then you make contact. So we tried to keep our hands out and block vision. I thought our guys did a really good job of that. That was one of the goals we talked about in practice. They lead the nation in free throw shooting and we didn't want to put them in the bonus with 13 or 12 minutes to go. I think we did a pretty good job with that."
That they did.While West Virginia did commit 18 infractions in the game, it was the timing of them that proved important. Notre Dame didn't reach the bonus until just 4:37 remained on the clock in the first half, and got just one one-and-one opportunity the rest of the way. In the second half, the seventh Mountaineer team foul came at the 6:36 mark, but again, that exceeded the goals set by the coaching staff.
Had they not done so, Notre Dame might well have won the game. The Irish finished a perfect 17-17 from the line, which was the best mark without a miss by a WVU opponent since Rhode Island made 19 of 19 in a Feb. 5, 1983 Atlantic Ten game on the road. (WVU won that game also.) This marked the third time this year that the Irish had a perfect game from the line, so it wasn't a surprise.
"We knew they could make those shots," Daxter Miles said afterward. "We had to keep them off the line as much as possible. We had a great defensive flow in the game."
While achieving that task was tough enough, WVU also managed to hold its fouls down without sacrificing its aggressiveness. The dictum to avoid fouls could have made the Mountaineers more passive, but that didn't happen. WVU forced 14 Notre Dame turnovers and disrupted its offensive rhythm constantly, forcing the shot clock to wind down and changing the Irish pace of play. They were forced to launch more than half of their shots from beyond the arc, and although they made ten that was more than offset by a five bucket Mountaineer advantage overall. In the end, West Virginia also outscored the Irish from the line, making 21 of their 26 attempts.
A second defensive key to the win was the job the Mountaineer defense did on Notre Dame point guard Matt Farrell.Averaging more than 14 points per game coming in, WVU's guards, with the help of the top of the 1-3-1 zone, held him to just eight points in 36 minutes. They also forced him into four turnovers (he was averaging fewer than 2.5), and forced many of his drives to move horizontally away from the basket.
"Farrell is very good and very tough, and plays with a lot of confidence, but [Jevon Carter] and Tarik [Phillip] and those guys, we tell people they are just as good as anyone in the country," Harrison said.
On this day, they certainly showed it.