By PAUL GOTHAM
BUFFALO, N.Y. — Notre Dame let out one last gasp. West Virginia, and in particular Jevon Carter, snuffed it out.
The junior guard, who matched a season-high with 24 points, ran Notre Dame’s Matt Farrell off a pair of ball screens at the top of the key. When it looked like he would turn the corner and take it to the cup, he let fly with a step-back three over the outstretched hands of Fighting Irish forward, Bonzie Colson.
Two minutes and thirty-five seconds remained in a nine-point game, and they could have cued John Denver’s “Take Me Home Country Roads.”
“Not a lot of guys can make that shot, but not a lot of guys can do what he does,” Farrell said of Carter. “It’s tough when he’s hitting step-back threes. He’s really talented. He’s really good at creating space. He’s quick. He’s quick off the dribble.”
In a game pitting West Virginia’s defense leading the nation in turnovers forced against Notre Dame’s ball-control offense, Carter directed a WVU offense which connected on 17 of 33 second-half possessions including its last 10 to close the game.
“All year we’ve been telling ourselves that we got the best group of guards in the country, and we truly believe that,” Carter said. “So, when it’s time for us to play, we go out there and give it our all.”
With the 83-71 win, WVU broke a program record for points (2,956) in a single-season and finished one point better than their season average per game which ranks them 21st in the nation.
“There’s days, honestly, I don’t know how we get to 82, but somehow we do,” Huggins said. “Our guys play so hard, I think it forces other people to play harder, but I think also people aren’t used to playing at the pace that we play at.”
West Virginia’s offensive output, though, gets lost in translation. WVU entered the contest forcing more than 20 turnovers per game and scoring more than 25 points on these miscues. On Saturday they forced 14 mishandles (four in the second half) and scored 15 points off those opportunities. They balanced out the effort with 26 points in the paint, 24 behind the arc and 21 at the free throw line (in 26 attempts).
At the same time, they held Notre Dame, which came in hitting 38.5 percent from long range, to 30 percent (6-20) from behind the arc in the second stanza.
“We just wanted to wear them down,” Huggins explained. “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 Notre Dame to attack the rim. I wanted them, quite frankly, to shoot threes, rather than turn them loose in the pressure.”
The effect was seen on WVU’s offensive end. Notre Dame’s legs, a little weary from the relentless pressure, were a step slow defending shots. West Virginia connected on 11 of 19 shots from the floor in the second half including five of six from long range.
In a game where they never trailed, the Mountaineers always had an answer.
Steve Vasturia sandwiched an Elijah Macon free throw with a pair of buckets, and Notre Dame moved within four points early in the second half. WVU responded with six in a row. Eight possessions later, Colson nailed a 3-pointer to make it a 48-44 affair. Tarik Phillip and Carter hit from long range on the next three trips down the floor. Phillip connecting twice.
“First couple years here, they thought of us as defensive players, you know?,” Phillip said. “But Coach, the coaching staff instilled a lot of confidence in us and helped us develop our offensive game and we became pretty good offensive players.”
The waves of pressure both on defense and offense took its toll on Notre Dame.
“I’ve got a really mentally tough group, but that was a real mental test today,” Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey said. “Any time we thought we’d get this thing to four or get it to two possessions, somebody hit a big three or they got a putback. It’s really spirit-breaking after a while, and it does wear on our group.”
Carter found the measure on both of his attempts from long range in the second. He coupled that with a three of four effort from the free throw line and finished with two assists and zero turnovers.
“Cut it to four a couple times, try to go on a run and Jevon hits a big shot or somebody else hits a big shot,” Farrell said. “They shot it really well from three. We felt we had a lot of open looks. We took ‘em. It’s basketball sometimes you know; they’re not going to fall.”
West Virginia advanced to the Sweet 16 for the fourth time under head coach Bob Huggins. The last time they played in Buffalo was 2010 when they advanced to the Final Four.
“They’re really good,” Brey said. “They got the look. They can play for a while.”
The 12-point win over Notre Dame was their largest margin of victory in an NCAA Tournament game since beating Washington, 69-56 in the 2010 Sweet 16.
“I love Buffalo,” Huggins deadpanned. “I came here in ’93, World University Games, we won. Played Canisius in ’07, and we won. Came here in 2010, and we won too. We just won two now. I love Buffalo. Anytime you want to invite us to come back, we’ll come back.”