BUFFALO — Whatever Notre Dame tried to do, it had to do it in a big hurry. West Virginia gave the Irish no time to think and little time to react, which is how the Mountaineers like to play and which is why they appear to be in no rush to leave this NCAA Tournament.
“They’ve got the look. They can play for a while,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said of West Virginia, which beat the Fighting Irish, 83-71, on Saturday to earn its ticket to the Sweet 16 and quite possibly beyond.
West Virginia stifled the Irish from the opening minutes with its full-court pressure, building a quick 10-0 lead. Later, it put away the West Regional second-round game with a burst of offense, sinking its first five three-pointers of the second half and keeping Notre Dame at arm’s length. The bottom line was that the fourth-seeded Mountaineers made a case for themselves as a solid contender for the Final Four.
“We’re just going to keep a straight head and we’re just going to keep running for it,” said Jevon Carter, who had 24 points in a solid all-around game that showed no flaws for West Virginia (28-8). “All year we’ve been telling ourselves that we’ve got the best group of guards in the country, and we truly believe that.”
Their belief comes directly from coach Bob Huggins, whose frown-first, dry-wit demeanor can make it easy to underestimate his team, especially on offense. “Huggs always has a countless amount of belief in me,” said Carter, a junior guard. “Even at times when I didn’t believe in myself, he just kept believing in me. Nobody’s perfect. We’re all going to make mistakes. He just told me, keep playing.”
The whole Mountaineers team works hard on the defensive approach that kept Notre Dame (26-10) on edge and limited the effectiveness of point guard Matt Farrell (eight points and only six shots). The Irish did get 27 points from Bonzie Colson, playing on a sore ankle, but they never hit their stride. Notre Dame is known for not committing turnovers and WVU forced them into 14 overall, 10 in the first half.
“Bob has done an unbelievable job, reinventing with full-court pressure,” Brey said. “We played West Virginia a lot in the old Big East days. Bob and I were actually talking about how we missed those days. But they were not a full-court-pressure team then. This guy has been winning for a long time in a lot of places. He is just a good old basketball coach. He loves practice, he loves to go in and talk X’s and O’s. They found a heck of a niche in the Big 12. I don’t know how they fly three hours to every road game. It’s unbelievable that they have to do that, but here they are.”
Time is not a pressing issue for the Mountaineers. They never are in a hurry to leave the gym. Carter has been known to spend an extra six or seven hours there after practice, just shooting. “Not straight, I break it up,” he said. “I mean, I’m in Morgantown. I go to school and I play ball. That’s really all there is for me to do.”
He and his teammates have spent a lot of time preparing for a game such as Saturday’s, which is why they shot 50.0 percent from the field and 57.1 percent from three-point range and had five double-figures scorers. Daxter Miles Jr. scored 18 and Tarik Phillip had 12.
“We play a lot of defense, man, so when we’re hitting shots, we’re tough to beat. Huggs has always said that,” said Phillip, a senior from Brooklyn who used to play for the Long Island Lightning, an AAU team. “We’re running right now, we’re running.”
They are just not in a rush.