By Greg Hunter
Someone tell Dionne Warwick that the way to San Jose goes through Buffalo.
After holding off Bucknell in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at the KeyBank Center on Thursday, West Virginia was back in the downtown Buffalo arena Saturday afternoon. This one also ended in a WVU victory, as West Virginia’s 83-71 win over Notre Dame punched the Mountaineers’ ticket to the Sweet 16 in San Jose.
It was WVU’s 10th trip all time to the Sweet 16 and its fourth in the 10-year coaching reign of Bob Huggins. It also improved West Virginia’s NCAA record in Buffalo to 4-0, as its run to the Final Four in 2010 started with a couple wins in Western New York.
Saturday’s victory over the Mountaineers’ former Big East rival came through a combination of offensive efficiency and defensive tenacity.
Most are used to WVU’s prowess in the defensive end, and that was certainly a factor in Buffalo, as the 26-10 Fighting Irish committed 14 turnovers (its second most this season from a team that led the NCAA in fewest turnovers committed per game at 9.3) and shot just 40.7 percent from the floor (its fifth worst effort of the campaign).
But it was more than just West Virginia’s defense that propelled it on to the Sweet 16 for the second time in the past three seasons. The Mountaineers’ offensive efficiency, which saw them make 50 percent of their field goal attempts, 57.1 percent of their three-point attempts and 80.8 percent of their free throws, was near a record high. And not just for the season but for program history. It was just the third time ever a WVU team has shot better than 50 percent from the field, 57 percent from three and 80 percent from the line, joining games against Iowa State in 2014 (54/59/91) and Arizona in 2008 (51/58/89).
“I didn’t expect West Virginia to shoot from the outside as well they did,” admitted ND coach Mike Brey, who lost for just the sixth time in his 20 meetings with his old Big East rival. “I thought we could play a little more zone and make them make more threes. But they made every big three-point shot.”
In particular WVU’s backcourt of Jevon Carter (24 points), Daxter Miles (18 points) and Tarik Phillip (12 points) proved to be deadly for the Irish. Not only did they combine for 54 of West Virginia’s 83 points, they also made 17 of their 29 field goal attempts, 7-of-10 three-point tries and 13-of-15 free throws, as well as providing eight assists and five steals against just three turnovers.
“Carter is a big-time winner. What a stud guard he is,” exclaimed Brey of WVU’s junior guard, who reached the 20-point mark for the ninth time in his career. “He’s fabulous. He’s just a veteran winner in college basketball.”
The Mountaineers jumped out to a 10-0 lead before the game was barely three minutes old, as the Irish missed their first five shots. WVU would never trail, though Notre Dame certainly didn’t go away.
“The shots we got were pretty good ones,” said Brey. “We had a little runner in the lane, V.J. (Beachem) with a 10-footer on the baseline. I think we were awake and ready to play. We weren’t turning the ball over at that time to give them the 10-0 lead. I think it was, you know, missing some stuff.
“We had our spurts of turning the ball over, but 14 against them is … that’s a pretty good day with only four in the second half,” noted Notre Dame’s 17-year head coach who had led the Irish to the Elite Eight the previous two seasons. “But you got to make some shots. You’ve got to make a few over the top of it.”
ND ended up shooting a bunch of threes, as it was 10-of-28 from beyond the arc. But they were also only 12-of-26 from two-point range and managed just 16 points in the paint. Notre Dame’s 14 turnovers aren’t a horrible number against “Press” Virginia, as only five Mountaineer foes had less this season. But WVU’s defense sped up the pace beyond the Irish’s liking and forced ND to rush – and miss – a number of open shots.
“I think that’s the goal of the press,” noted Notre Dame senior guard Steve Vasturia. “They obviously want to turn you over. If not, they want to get you out of your rhythm. Besides our start (when WVU opened a 10-0 lead), I thought we did a pretty good job. We got a bunch of good looks. We did a good job getting the ball across half court. But you have to knock down open shots once you get it across half court, and we didn’t make enough of those today.”
West Virginia did force 10 first-half turnovers, and scored 11 points off them, to spur a 42-35 lead at the break. Notre Dame settled down and committed just four turnovers in the second half, but WVU’s pressure continued to wear on the Irish, who made just 12-of-31 shots in the final 20 minutes. That figure included Bonzie Colson’s 7-of-8 second half shooting, as ND’s junior forward almost personally kept Notre Dame in the contest, scoring 18 of his game-high 27 points in the after halftime. That was 50 percent of the Irish’s second-half point total, as Colson’s teammates made only 5-of-23 shots in that 20-minute stretch.
Colson, whose father played for Rhode Island in the late ‘80s, brought ND to within three with 4:31 left, but West Virginia continued to hit clutch shots to pull away at the end.
“We wanted to take them out of everything they run,” explained WVU junior forward Elijah Macon, who had 11 points and four rebounds. “Watching their film and everything, you have to take them out of their offense. I feel like if we took them out of their offense, it would be really hard for them to score. And I feel like we did a really good job of that. That was the plan. If (the traps were) available, we would trap it. If not, we were going to let the guards guard them one-on-one.”
So, while “Press” Virginia didn’t actually turn Notre Dame over an inordinate number of times, the cumulative effects still were a huge factor in securing the Mountaineer victory. That and just plain hitting shots on the offensive end. That combination proved to be a sweet recipe for the Mountaineers.