WVU started slowly, missing eight of its first 11 shots, and never got into an offensive flow against a physical Notre Dame defense. The Mountaineers shot 37.7 percent from the field (23 of 61) after it had averaged 46 percent from the floor entering. The Irish hit more than half of their shots from the field, including answers from Carter and Luke Harangody whenever West Virginia would make a run. Carter hit six straight Irish points when Nichols and Da'Sean Butler strung together two three-pointers, and the two tallied four straight points after the Nichols three with just under two minutes left made it a one possession game at 55-53.
"I am proud of our guys the way we fought back," WVU head coach John Beilein said. "The first half was the worst for us, no question. We were indecisive and played out of character. I didn't know what to say at halftime, didn't know where to start. We did perform better, and took the ball to the basket better, in the second half."
West Virginia was led by Alex Ruoff's 14 points, four off his career high set at Duquesne this season. Young added 13 and six assists, while Butler had nine points and nine rebounds, the latter tying a career high. Rob Summers also had nine rebounds. Colin Falls scored 14 for the Irish. Harangody added 11, while Kurz had eight points and 11 rebounds as Notre Dame (14-2, 2-1) rebounded from its biggest loss in seven years under head coach Mike Brey after it was beaten 66-48 at Georgetown on Jan. 6.
It was West Virginia's first road game in exactly a month. The Mountaineers had started the Big East slate with three consecutive home games, allowing them to build confidence and an impressive eight-game winning streak - and the best start sonce 1981-82 - before coming to the Joyce Center, where WVU has won just twice since 1987. It appeared hesitant at first, and Notre Dame's physical play kept West Virginia from any offensive sync as it trailed 31-21 at the break. The Irish also started slow, and the lead only ballooned in the last five-plus minutes, when ND scored 13 of the final 15 points of the opening period.
West Virginia forged its only lead of the game at 19-18 on a drive by Joe Alexander with 5:40 left in a choppy first half that lacked any flow on both sides. Young, well guarded on the outside, had hit one of the only two WVU threes to that point, Smalligan nailing the other. But the Irish had not been able to take advantage of their defense, missing three of four free throws and failing to convert on numerous second chances.
The edge didn't last. The Mountaineers began attempting to dribble through the Irish's variety of zones and man defense. That helped cause the 13-2 Notre Dame push and led to eight turnovers against just nine made field goals – and just six three-point tries – in the first half. Kurz and Carter scored a combined eight points and Zeller and Falls added a two and three-pointer, respectively, in the run. It was the biggest halftime deficit WVU had faced this season.
The late run elevated Notre Dame's first half shooting to 57 percent from inside the arc and 52 percent overall. The Mountaineers shot just 37 percent (nine of 29), and seemed physically outmanned by a physical Irish squad with solid depth. Falls and Carter already had nine points by then. WVU went down 14 points with 19 minutes remaining on a Kurz slam and remained behind by at least six until Young and Nichols sandwiched their three-pointers around a Carter dunk to get within 44-39 at the 12:10 mark.
The teams went back and forth from there until Ruoff rushed two shots and was blown past as a defender, which led to a Falls three-pointer from the corner for a 55-45 Notre Dame lead with five minutes left. Ruoff did answer with a three, and WVU got a stop and a Butler putback off a Nichols long-range miss to get back within five points. Another stop gave the Mountaineers the ball with three minutes left, and it got as close as 55-53 on Nichols' three-pointer before Ruoff tried to drive again and was blocked.
"It might have been fools gold if we hit few more shots," said Beilein, who failed to get his 17th win against ranked teams at WVU, 12 of which have come on the road. "If a couple more go down, we might have won and not as learned as much about ourselves. I can't wait to watch film and coach them. Can't wait to play Saturday and try to get a road win in the Big East."
West Virginia faces Marquette then, a team that dropped its first two Big East games against Providence and Syracuse. The Golden Eagles (13-4, 0-2) must still play at No. 24 Connecticut tomorrow. WVU began Big East play 8-0 last year, and had been second in the NCAA in scoring defense entering. It did outrebound a team for the second straight game, a first this season, and has a 12-board edge in its last two games against Notre Dame and St. John's. The Mountaineers hit 10 three-pointers, eight in the second half.