Heading into Wednesday night's game between West Virginia and Notre Dame, luck was certainly on the side of the Irish. Of the 32 previous meetings between the two schools, Notre Dame had come out on top 24 times. That included a dominant 11-1 mark under the direction of Mike Brey, now in his ninth season at ND. The Fighting Irish had also taken home 13 of the past 14 games, the lone exception being a one-point WVU win in 2006.
Alex Ruoff and the Mountaineers, though, were out to buck that trend. They did, as Ruoff scored 24 points and West Virginia shook off a rusty start to come away with a 79-68 win at the Coliseum in front of a boisterous near-capacity crowd.
Early, it looked as though the Fighting Irish would roll once more. At the under 16 media timeout, Notre Dame led by 10, thanks in no small part to an impressive offensive display that made WVU's normally-stingy half-court man-to-man defense look surprisingly feeble.
The Irish were getting wide open shots from virtually everywhere on the court. To counter that, West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins dug into the John Beilein era and pulled out the 1-3-1 zone defense.
"I looked at last year's tape and (the 1-3-1) slowed them down a little bit," said Huggins. "I thought we had to do something to change tempo. I put Alex in the back (of the zone) even though he's really never played in the back before. He knows what he's doing. We just tried to coach Devin (Ebanks) and Kevin (Jones) through it."
The switch paid off for Huggins and the Mountaineers, who flustered the formerly-potent Notre Dame offense and managed to find a way to score the ball themselves on the other end. Ruoff, who had scored in double-figures for 14 straight games before an eight-point effort against Villanova on Friday night, got back on track offensively to lead the way.
He finished nine-of-16 from the field, including four-of-eight from three-point range, and also dished out four assists while playing all 40 minutes.
"He's really worked," Huggins said of his lone senior. "You have to give him tremendous credit. He shot the ball really well today, but he hadn't shot the ball well before. He's found ways to score. He's become more versatile. He's become maybe our best defender – period."
"We tried to do a little bit of everything with Ruoff," said Brey. "We tried some box-and-one and we played some zone. We tried everything."
Yet, little worked defensively for the Fighting Irish. Helping out Ruoff was Da'Sean Butler. Though he wasn't close to equaling his 43-point outburst from Friday night, Butler still made enough shots to keep Notre Dame's defenders from focusing solely on Ruoff.
Also making a big impact was freshman forward Kevin Jones, who had the best game of his career with a double-double of 12 points and 10 rebounds. Jones, who has been solid for much of the season, gave West Virginia a huge lift off the bench, and also did a serviceable job in trying to contain reigning Big East Player of the Year Luke Harangody.
"I thought Kevin came in and really gave us a lot of energy," Huggins noted. "He really did a good job rebounding the ball and we moved the ball a little bit better."
As they normally do, the Mountaineers cleaned up on the glass Wednesday night, outrebounding the Fighting Irish by a count of 44-32. Included in that total were 17 offensive rebounds, leading to 16 second-chance points for West Virginia. Letting the Mountaineers get multiple shots on possessions is what ultimately led to Notre Dame giving up its dominating early lead.
And once West Virginia seized control for good shortly before halftime, the continued offensive rebounding made it much more difficult for the Fighting Irish to get back into the game.
"Probably what hurt us the most were their second shots," Brey admitted. "(Our) first shot defense was pretty good, but we couldn't get to our defensive backboard consistently. That really gave them confidence right before the half ended and then throughout the second half."
Harangody did all he could to lead Notre Dame back, especially in the second half. The junior All-America candidate, who leads the Big East in both scoring and rebounding, recorded another double-double with game highs of 26 points and 13 rebounds.
"I think he was a warrior tonight," Brey said. "I give him a lot of credit. They just kept bringing bodies at him and we did a great job at finding him. He was fabulous in finding his teammates and moving it around. He gave us everything he could."
Even Harangody's effort, however, wasn't enough for Notre Dame as Ruoff and the Mountaineers clamped down over the final 35 minutes of play and came away with huge Big East victory that inches West Virginia even closer to being an NCAA tournament lock.