If there are 12 teams in the country better than West Virginia, the NCAA Tournament is headed for some epic games over the next two weekends.
The 13th-ranked Mountaineers dismantled 14th-ranked Notre Dame Saturday, 83-71, in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
West Virginia beat the Irish in the paint and behind the three-point arc, on the backboards and at the foul line, in transition and in the half-court game.
“They’re really good, they’re really good,” said Notre Dame coach Mike Brey with a shake of his head. “They got the look. They could play for awhile.”
“There was a sportswriter in West Virginia who put a poll out: Are we top 20? Are we top 50? Are we top 100?” Mountaineers coach Bob Huggins said, referring to a recent pot-stirring internet survey. “And I shared that with our guys. And our guys go, top 100? And we used that as kind of a source of motivation.”
Nobody in KeyBank Center could doubt the Mountaineers’ worthiness in the Sweet 16. West Virginia (28-8) advanced to next weekend’s West Regional in San Jose, Calif., with its largest margin of victory in an NCAA game since 2010.
West Virginia got a big game from its veteran backcourt and was too big and physical for Notre Dame inside.
Junior point guard Jevon Carter matched a season high with 24 points and made 4 of 5 three-pointers. Senior off-guard Daxter Miles Jr. scored 18.
West Virginia held a 26-16 advantage on points in the paint and outshot the Irish from the field, 50 percent to 40.7 percent.
“The one thing about West Virginia that’s the same as when we played them back in the Big East and moreso today,” Brey said, “is they got men. They have old dudes, and staying old is a good thing in college basketball. They’re a little older than us today.”
West Virginia jumped to a 10-0 lead, never trailed and never led by fewer than six over the final 13 minutes.
West Virginia won the showdown of contrasting styles. The Mountaineers are the No. 1 turnover-forcing team in the nation, creating 20.3 a game. Notre Dame (26-10) committed the fewest in the nation (9.3 a game).
Notre Dame only made 14 turnovers for the game, but it made 10 in the first half. And West Virgina’s on-ball pressure didn’t allow the normally efficient Irish offense to work for many easy baskets.
West Virginia only employed its full-court zone defense for perhaps a quarter of the game, and the Mountaineers rarely threw its half-court zone trap at the Irish. The emphasis was man-to-man pressure.
“We just wanted to wear them down,” Huggins said. “We wanted to make them work really hard at advancing the ball. They shoot the ball so well, if you trap them and you don’t do a good job or you don’t make the right rotation, they’re going to make shots. And so we were a little bit concerned about that. I didn’t want to turn them loose.”
West Virginia had trapped almost the whole game in beating Bucknell in the first round on Thursday.
“I thought against Bucknell we did a horrible job of stopping the ball, and so they were constantly attacking the rim,” Huggins said. “I didn’t want Notre Dame to attack the rim. I wanted them, quite frankly, to shoot threes, rather than turn them loose in the pressure.”
The Irish made 10 of 28 three-pointers. Aside from star forward Bonzie Colson, who had 27 points, none of the Irish could get buckets inside.
“Their style of play is really hard to deal with,” Brey said. “It wore on us at times. And even though we only turned it over 14 times, four in the second half, it probably caused us to miss some of those open looks. You’re gonna have to make some open looks after you get it out of the trap. We probably couldn’t make enough of them.”
On offense, West Virginia pushed the ball into its fleet of tall low-post players, and that opened up room on the perimeter for Carter and Miles.
“We knew they was small,” Carter said. “Trying to get inside to our bigs a lot, play inside out. And we knew they was going to have a hard time guarding us.”
“The whole deal with them has been do what you can do,” Huggins said. “Don’t try to be something you’re not. And you know, we’ve got post guys now that have turned into really good post guys because they don’t go in and shoot three-pointers for 20 minutes before practice. They actually go in and work on shooting jump hooks.”