West Virginia rides early advantage to victory over Notre Dame
Alex Carson | Saturday, March 18, 2017
BUFFALO, N.Y. — Before four minutes had elapsed in Saturday’s second-round matchup with No. 4 seed West Virginia, Irish head coach Mike Brey had to take a timeout; the Mountaineers had jumped out to a 10-0 lead on No. 5 seed Notre Dame.
At times the rest of the way, the Irish (26-10, 12-6 ACC) made runs. At others, they struggled with turnovers, and later, keeping the Mountaineers off the offensive glass.
But every time West Virginia (28-8, 12-6 Big 12) needed one, it had an answer ready. Mountaineers junior guard Jevon Carter was often that man, pouring in 24, as West Virginia ended Notre Dame’s season by a 83-71 count in Buffalo, New York.
“That start hurt us,” Brey said. “When you’re digging out of a hole against a team like that, it’s just an uphill climb and it’s draining mentally and physically. I love that we made some runs and tried to close the gap, but West Virginia made big shots to hold us off any time we thought we had a little hope.”
West Virginia chiefly does two things really well: forcing turnovers, with its “Press Virginia” system, and crashing the offensive glass, with its frontline that features 6-foot-8 sophomore Esa Ahmad, 6-foot-9 junior Elijah Macon and 6-foot-9 senior Nathan Adrian.
For the first few minutes Saturday, neither particularly plagued the Irish. Notre Dame turned it over just once in its first 10 possessions, and the Irish held the Mountaineers to just three second-chance points in the whole first half.
Yet, despite ticking those boxes, the Irish found themselves behind 10-0.
Soon, the turnover bug hit. Sophomore guard Rex Pflueger, freshman guard T.J. Gibbs and junior forward Martinas Geben turned it over on consecutive possessions, then later in the half, two turnovers in three possessions.
Still, when Gibbs hit a pair of free throws with 4:31 left in the half, the Irish had closed the gap to just three, 32-29. Three turnovers later, it was back out to nine, at 38-29.
“[The press] wasn’t something that we didn’t handle as well as we thought we could,” junior forward Bonzie Colson said. “It sucks that we didn’t do what we should have done.”
In one way or another, that was the trend the rest of the day.
When a pair of senior guard Steve Vasturia layups cut a 42-35 halftime deficit to 43-39, it was a Carter jumper and sophomore forward Esa Ahmad dunk that helped pushed the Mountaineers’ advantage straight back to nine. When five Colson points and a junior guard Matt Farrell 3-pointer brought the Irish within four twice, two Tarik Phillip 3s either side of a Carter trey pushed the lead back to 10. When Vasturia cut the lead to seven with 6:46 left, it was Ahmad who hit a 3.
And with 2:35 left, just after sophomore forward Matt Ryan brought the Irish within six, Carter stepped up, hit a 3 and just about guaranteed a Mountaineers win.
“Good defense, better offense,” Farrell said. “They’ve got talented guys who can score and those are backbreakers.”
In many ways, it was Colson who kept Notre Dame in the game Saturday. The junior forward was 10-for-15 from the field — including a 4-for-5 performance from 3-point range — as he racked up 27 points and eight rebounds in the defeat. The performance, Brey said, was made more impressive by the fact that Colson, who played the final 9:47 with four fouls, was still feeling the effects of his sprained ankle suffered a week earlier.
“He puts the team on his back and he’s not 100 percent,” Brey said. “That ankle is bothering him. That’s one of the great performances, just trying to carry a team on a bad wheel.”
Colson played the final 9:47 with four fouls, but Brey said there was never a chance of his star coming out.
“That’s the ‘Coaching 101’ textbook that doesn’t mean a damn thing,” Brey said. “If I take him out, we lose by 20. He’s smart enough, he’s a veteran — he’s gotta play and he’s gonna be smart defensively, which he was, but he’s scoring for us. If you play around and, well, we’ll save him for the last — get out of here.”
But where Colson was pouring it in, the rest of the Irish squad wasn’t. Colson’s teammates shot a combined 12-for-39 from the field, and hit just 6-of-23 3-point attempts. The most notable struggles, however, came from the squad’s two senior captains: Vasturia was just 1-for-5 from 3-point range, while forward V.J. Beachem was only 2-of-14 from the field, including 1-of-9 from deep.
“My teammates did a great job of finding me open shots like they usually do,” Beachem said. “You know today, I just wasn’t able to knock them down.”
Despite the struggles, it was easy for Brey to stick with his leader.
“He’s our guy. He’s been a guy that has kind of bounced out of it and made those, then,” Brey said. “He’s had tough games maybe for 31 minutes and then he makes a couple plays at the end. And I just felt, you’ve gotta ride him.”
When he was in the game, Ryan was a spark — he jumped a passing lane to feed Farrell and kickstart an Irish run in the first half, while his 3-pointer with 3:07 left was ultimately the last gasp of hope for the Notre Dame faithful.
“We snuck Matt Ryan in there a bit and he gave us some really good stuff here, not only tonight, but in the postseason, which sets him up for next season,” Brey said.
While the Irish turned the ball over 10 times in the first half, they adjusted in the second half, giving the ball away just four times against the West Virginia pressure. But Notre Dame just couldn’t get the stops, or the buckets, it needed at key points in the second half.
“Their style of play is hard to deal with. It wore on us at times,” Brey said. “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 going to have to make some open looks after you get it out of the trap, and we probably couldn’t make enough of them.”
The Mountaineers finished 8-for-14 as a team from behind the arc, shooting far better from deep than their pregame season average (36.3 percent).
“I thought we could play a little more zone and make them make more 3s, and they made every big 3-point shot, and Carter is a big-time winner,” Brey said.
Brey said he expects Colson to return next season for his senior year, but that if the opportunity is there, he’ll support Colson’s decision to head to the NBA a year early.
“We’ll explore and talk about it,” Brey said. “I think he knows he should be a four-year guy, but like with any of our guys, if it’s time to really analyze and evaluate — and, if one team loves you and it’s the 18th pick in the draft, I’ll be the first to shake his hand.”
Senior forward Ausin Torres will return for a fifth year, but the loss marks the end of Beachem and Vasturia’s careers at Notre Dame. The duo leaves Notre Dame after accumulating 97 wins in four seasons — a school record.
“It’s tough. Two really good players and two really good guys; I’m just going to miss them off the court, you know,” Farrell said. “But they’ve got something to celebrate. Two great careers here — I’m trying to remember all the fun times we had — really good players and even better guys off the court.”