Bucky Gleason: West Virginia unveils other side of coin in victory over Notre Dame - The Buffalo News
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Bucky Gleason: West Virginia unveils other side of coin in victory over Notre Dame

Jevon Carter wasn't completely dismissing his team's trademark after the game Saturday because defense will be the top priority. Bob Huggins is the coach after all. His philosophy hasn't changed much after 32 years in the business, and he's not going to loosen up any time soon.

Carter wasn't the most talkative guy in the locker room after West Virginia advanced to the Sweet 16 with an 83-71 victory over Notre Dame in the second-round of NCAA Tournament. Ask the junior guard for his two cents, and he'll insist his pockets are empty. But one question struck a nerve.

If West Virginia is such a terrific defensive team, and the Mountaineers practice against each other every day with the same intensity they bring to the game, doesn't it stand to reason that they would eventually become better offensive players? To argue otherwise is an affront to their talent and development.

"I agree," Carter said. "That makes sense to me. Everybody sees the press, and they think that's all we are, like we score every basket from our press. Eventually, we're going to have to score in the half-court. But let people keep doubting us. It don't matter to us. It don't faze us at all. It's cool. It's all right."

West Virginia would just prefer everybody kept calling them "Press Virginia" and talked about their pressure while missing the point. The fourth-seeded Mountaineers confirmed in KeyBank Center what they knew all along: They're lethal offensively when they crank up the tempo and make shots from the perimeter.

You could understand why they were hesitant to discuss their offense, which was largely overlooked despite being ranked 20th in the country. They broke a school record for most points in a season with their victory Saturday and acted like some dark secret had gone viral and damaged their reputation as a one-dimensional team.

Now everyone knows they do more than smother opponents, that they have terrific shooters in their backcourt, that they're patient on offense and can pound the ball inside when necessary. West Virginia made was 11 of 19 from the field in the second half Saturday and had five players score in double-figures.

It's enough to beat any team in the country on most nights, and it was far too much for fifth-seeded Notre Dame to handle. Carter scored a team-high 24 points on 8-of-15 shooting from the floor, including 4 of 5 from three-point range. Daxter Miles Jr. added 18 points. Tarik Phillip came off the bench and added 12.

"Our first couple of years here, they thought of us as defensive players, you know?" Phillip said. "The coaching staff instilled a lot of confidence in us and helped us develop our offensive game. We became pretty good offensive players."

West Virginia isn't a pretty offensive team, but it's an efficient and resourceful one that can score. WVU's offense is predicated by its high-intensity defense, which takes teams out of their comfort zones. It forces opponents into making poor decisions, leading to easy baskets on the other end. None of that has changed.

In truth, it’s so much more.

The Mountaineers certainly don't get enough credit for functioning at a high level in the half-court offense. The can slow down games, too. Their guards can attack the basket and shoot from the outside. They'll make the extra pass and find the open man. They can score quickly when given the opportunity.

And they always – always – play aggressive defense.

It has been the identity of Huggins-coached teams. He reached the 1992 Final Four with Cincinnati and returned in 2010 with West Virginia. He has won 1,051 games but has never coached for a national championship. This team can win in a variety of ways, which makes them dangerous in the tournament.

West Virginia is much better offensively than the squad that reached the Sweet 16 two years ago. It could be his most complete team since WVU reached the Final Four seven years ago. In the Big Dance, it's about making shots the way the Mountaineers did Saturday, when they converted 58 percent in the second half.

"When we have both sides of the fence going, offensively and defensively, we can be really good," Miles said. "Like today, man, it was a great team effort from everybody. It's ain't about me. It ain't about him. It's about us. As long as we keep that mindset, you never know."

If there was any doubt about WVU losing after leading all game, it ended with Carter's step-back three over Bonzie Colson from the left wing. It gave the Mountaineers a 75-66 advantage with 2:33 remaining. It was his answer for Matt Ryan's three about 30 seconds earlier to bring Notre Dame within six.

The Fighting Irish were 32nd in the nation from long range but struggled to find the basket Saturday. Senior V.J. Beachem made only 2 of 14 shots from the floor, including 1 of 9 from long range. His teammates shot 50 percent from the field. Colson had a game-high 27 points on 10-of-15 shooting.

WVU will come across a team that makes good decisions, has more talent and doesn't buckle under duress. No matter how they're going down, they're going down swinging. If they keep fighting long enough, if they continue playing the way they did in Buffalo, they're capable of winning the whole thing.

Huggins didn't need to be asked for his two cents Saturday. He reached into his pocket, found two wins and showed another dimension to his personality.

"Can I say this?" Huggins said. "Listen, I love Buffalo. I came here in '93 for the World University Games, we won. We played Canisius in '07, we won. We came here in 2010, and we won, too. And we just won two now. Any time you want to invite us to come back, we’ll come back. Thank you."

 

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