After blowout losses to Connecticut and Tennessee, both ranked No. 1, the No. 16 Mountaineers built a 20-point lead, then held off No. 14 Notre Dame 56-50 for just its second victory over the Irish in 17 meetings.
"We really needed something positive coming off that Connecticut game," WVU head coach Mike Carey said. "We had Marquette by 20 two years ago and got beat. I'mjust glad I'm standing here after a win."
That almost didn't happen. Despite getting 17 points from Meg Bulger and 15 from Yinka Sanni, West Virginia blew a 31-11 halftime lead. It led by 12 when Notre Dame hit three consecutive threes, two from Brittany Mallory, and two free throws to get within 44-43 with 1:40 left. But Bulger hit the first two of West Virginia's 10 consecutive makes from the foul line in the final 90 seconds and Notre Dame missed outside shots on its next two trips down the floor. The Irish never got any closer than two points afterward, that on another three with just 27 seconds left, before Sanni and LaQuita Owens made four free throws for a 54-48 lead with 15 seconds left.
"They are very poised," Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw said. "Meg Bulger had a great game and Yinka Sanni was a real tough match inside."
As was West Virginia's first-half defense. It mixed its usual man defense with a 2-3 zone to force 18 turnovers, 11 in the first eight minutes to take a 17-4 lead. The Mountaineers had 7-0 and 10-0 runs before Notre Dame made its fourth field goal to get within 17-8. WVU allowed just one field goal over the final seven minutes of the first half to lead 31-11 at the break. It was tied a school-record for lowest opponent first half score. UNC Greensboro also scored 11 versus the Mountaineers in 2004.
"I thought that was about as bad as we have ever played in the first half," McGraw said. "I was disappointed in a lack of effort and a lack of any kind of performance. We played awful, and there is no explanation and no excuse for that."
Notre Dame missed 23 of the first 29 attempts, often attempting off-balance and fade away shots as the clock ran down. That changed in the second half, when it began to drive to the basket for higher percentage looks. The Irish finished 13 of 53 from the field (24.5 percent), its worst shooting performance of the season. They had shot better than 50 percent in six of its 15 games.
It was West Virginia's second win over Notre Dame in 17 games. The Irish (13-3, 1-1 Big East) lost to a ranked foe for the third time in as many games this season, accounting for all of its losses. WVU (12-3, 2-1) also snapped Notre Dame's six-game road winning streak, its longest since its national championship season in 2001.
"We had a big lead, then we came out and stood around," Carey said. "I think we played too much not to lose rather than playing to win. We did do a good job in the final two minutes of finishing it up, but it should not have come down to that."
Charel Allen was the lone Notre Dame player in double figures with 11 points. Mallory added nine, all on threes, in the Irish's lowest scoring output of the year. The meeting was the first one in series history with both teams ranked.