(Title) Game Effort

NEW YORK -- It was a slow, grind-it-out affair that undoubtedly favored Notre Dame's newly-adopted style of offense. But West Virginia didn't need any particular pace to make its attack work. It had Da'Sean Butler, and that was all that mattered.

Butler scored 24 points, including 21 of the Mountaineers' first 39, and powered his team into the Big East Conference championship game for only the second time since joining the league before the 1995-96 season with a 53-51 victory over the Irish on Friday night at Madison Square Garden.

WVU, the tournament's No. 3 seed, will take on eighth-seeded Georgetown in the title game on Saturday night. The Hoyas advanced by taking out Marquette 80-57 in the other semifinal earlier Friday.

While that game was a relative blowout, West Virginia endured a nail-biter for the second time in as many nights at The World's Most Famous Arena.

It led by as many as 10 points on three separate occasions in the second half, but watched its opposition rally to within one at 48-47 on a pair of Tory Jackson free throws with 2:58 to go.

"I am starting to have a lot of confidence in our guys screwing up enough to let [opponents] back in the game," said Mountaineer head coach Bob Huggins.

But Joe Mazzulla, who played significant minutes in relief of a struggling Truck Bryant, scored on a lay-in to stop Notre Dame's 11-2 run, and Kevin Jones canned a pair of free throws to bring the lead back up to five.

Notre Dame (23-11, 12-9) rallied back on the efforts of Ben Hansbrough, who carried much of the offensive load for his team throughout.

Hansbrough drove and scored on a reverse lay-in to make it a three-point game, and after Butler hit one of two free throws, made a pair of his own to make it 53-51 with 47 seconds left.

After a Mountaineer timeout, Butler had the ball with the shot clock running down and fired a 3-pointer that he later called "a bad shot" -- one of the few he put up that didn't go in.

With no timeouts remaining, the Irish came down court and Jackson put up a 3-pointer with the clock winding down. It was short, and the ball bounced out towards the foul line.

Luke Harangody tapped it, and it briefly seemed to be controlled by Tyrone Nash. But before he could fire up a last desperate attempt to send the game to overtime, Wellington Smith stripped the ball cleanly and held on until the final horn.

"I just tried to get ready to box out," said Butler, recalling the final sequence surrounding Jackson's shot. "But that time, I saw him shoot the ball and I said, ‘Please, don't make that.'"

"Either he makes it or he doesn't. I just prayed he didn't. Thank God he didn't."

"It was kind of a weird game," said Notre Dame coach Mike Brey. "We were in a hole. But to dig out and have a look [to win], that was pretty good. We had the tempo we wanted."

"[The Mountaineers] are really good. They're very difficult to defend, they're physical, and they really take away space in the half-court with their length."

It was a dramatic ending to a game that had been played at a relatively lethargic pace throughout -- the sort of deliberate style that favored both teams, but had been the bread-and-butter of the Irish since Harangody was sidelined with a bone bruise for several games near the end of the regular season.

Notre Dame jumped out to a tenuous early lead on the back of its new offense. Nash scored on an easy lay-in just before the shot clock would have expired on the No. 7 seed's first possession.

But unlike the teams' prior meeting in South Bend (when the hosts had a 20-point lead in the first half), the Irish advantage wouldn't swell to astronomical levels in the early going. After a Jackson 3-pointer made it 9-4, WVU went on a 13-3 run to claim a 17-12 edge.

It did so on the back of Butler, who continued to put on a show on basketball's biggest stage. The forward scored nine of his team's points in that spurt and had 11 at the intermission.

On the other end, the Mountaineers tried to limit their opposition by going to a 1-3-1 zone defense much earlier than they have throughout most of the season. It worked, if only because Notre Dame players missed 11 of their 15 attempts from 3-point range in the first half.

"We play the 1-3-1 pretty well," said Huggins. "I thought it was effective."

Hansbrough tried to do his best Butler impersonation just before the break, hitting a running 3-pointer at the horn. But replays showed his release had come just after the period expired, and officials disallowed the basket upon review.

The junior guard (who also lost to West Virginia at the Garden in an NIT semifinal game when he was at Mississippi State in 2007) led the Irish with 17 points.

Jackson had seven points and seven assists against only one turnover. Harangody came off the bench to play 26 minutes and score 10 points.

"They're a very good team," said Hansbrough of the Mountaineers, who were the first team to beat Notre Dame since Louisville eked out a two-point win at Freedom Hall on Feb. 17. "I think this just goes to show that we can play with and we can beat anybody in the country."

For WVU (26-6, 15-5), Butler led the way with his 24 points. He added seven rebounds and a team-high three assists. Jones, who had 10, was the only other Mountaineer in double figures.

Devin Ebanks added eight points and seven boards, while Mazzulla came off the bench to contribute a season-high eight points of his own.

The win was historically significant for the victors on several fronts.

It moved Huggins past the legendary John Wooden on the all-time coaching wins list.

Butler now needs four points to become only the third Mountaineer to ever score 2,000 in his career.

And, perhaps most importantly, the program has a chance to win its first-ever Big East championship on Saturday -- and could even earn a No. 1 seed in the upcoming NCAA tournament if circumstances work out in its favor.

"It would mean the world to me [to win the Big East title] because it would be our first one, and I'm part of the team," Butler said. "That's something Coach has been talking about all year. If you want to be special you have to do special things. You can't just have good talent, a great coach and great schemes and come up with nothing. We have to win things."

"We can't blow this opportunity. I'm looking forward to this game tomorrow really bad. It's just an honor to be in this situation right now."


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