Of course, it's a chicken-or-egg question. Is WVU scoring because it's using ball movement, proper spacing, good shot selection and the other minute minutiae within the offensive game plan, or is its scoring generating a rise in the energy and invigoration necessary to both get stops defensively and then translate that into the opposite end? The answer is, well, both, and that was on full display against Notre Dame.
The Irish were playing solid, if not spectacular, defense early on. There were no major breakdowns, no lack of challenges to both spot-up shots and drives to the bucket. It didn't much matter. The Mountaineers' motion set carved up the Irish man defense from the start, getting the ball in solid spots on the floor to convert jumpers. And that was the key: West Virginia, in getting is decent looks, actually made them. Elijah Macon stepped out for an eight-footer and Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles both hit threes after an easy lay-in from Esa Ahmad. Suddenly, it was 10-0 and Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey was burning his first timeout just three minutes into the game.
The Mountaineers had seized the momentum, and they would hold it for the vast majority of play, managing to make a key shot every time the Irish were close enough to threaten. The offense operated with precision against both man and zone, and it dissected an ND team that was holding foes to fewer than 70 points per game as West Virginia scored 83 even with a series of misses from point blank range. That early lead fed an already confident group, and WVU continued to mercilessly attack Notre Dame at both ends, using relentless man pressure and an offense hitting on nearly all cylinders.
"It was good that we got that hot start," guard Tarik Phillip said. "We were guarding them, giving up the one shot and getting the rebound. And we ran offense. They didn't really take anything away. We pounded it inside the first coupe of possessions. It's a lot easier (when shots go in) and it energizes us as well."
It's cyclical, really. Good defense typically leads to offense, either in easy buckets off live ball turnovers, or in creating the energy and effort needed to make that quality cut, set a solid screen, attack the bucket off the drive. And that good offense, in turn, creates added momentum and motivation on the defensive end. It's difficult to tell what exactly sparks it in each game initially, though with the Mountaineers that's usually defense and rebounding. But once the two are set in motion, it's a symbiotic relationship that creates a very difficult match-up for opponents.
"The closest they got was four," Phillip said of the Irish attempt at a rally. "They hit a couple shots. We just stayed within ourselves and we guarded. And then we ended up hitting shots down the stretch."
None bigger than Carter's step-back three with 2:35 to play that boosted the lead back to nine at 75-66 after Notre Dame got within two possessions. But there were others as well. Ahmad's three when it was a seven-point game with five minutes left. Phillips' three from the top of the key when it was 48-44 with 14:30 to play. Carter's three a minute later when the Irish had answered with a trey of their own. Even Macon's putback tip-in when Notre Dame was within 68-61 inside four minutes. It all combined and mixed with a stout defensive effort that created as difficult a situation for the Irish as they had seen over the last month-plus, when they won nine of 11 entering against the fourth-seeded Mountaineers.
"We just broke the school record for points in a season, and we're averaging 82 a game," head coach Bob Huggins said. "I did the pre-game radio show and Tony (Caridi) said, you know, there's people saying that you can't score with them. And I said, 'We're averaging 82 a game.' Now, there's days, honestly, I don't know how we get to 82, but somehow we do."