This is simplifying things a bit but it’s also thematic for this West Virginia season. The game was over Saturday not long after it started. The Mountaineers started with a 10-0 lead, and that was that.
The advantage was not brought about by defense, either. Notre Dame had shots and missed shots, but WVU had shots and made shots. WVU created its chances with a patient and probing plan early, and that produced 10 unanswered points that answered the question, “Can the Mountaineers score with Notre Dame?” and then also asked serious questions of the Fighting Irish.
WVU is 23-3 when it leads a game by 10 or more points, and 23 out of 36 is a ridiculous ratio, but WVU also hasn’t lost a game by more than nine points all season. Notre Dame was going to outscore the Mountaineers by 11 in the final 35-plus minutes? Not Saturday, a day when the offense and defense were in such harmony.
“You’re kind of digging out against them the whole day,” Fighting Irish coach Mike Brey said. “It was hard to get over it. Their style of play is hard to deal with. It wore on us at times. 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 not only never trailed in the 83-71 win at the KeyBank Center, but they shot 50 percent from the floor and 57 percent from 3-point range — the first time this season they’ve been above 50 percent in both categories in the same game — and 81 percent from the free-throw line.
They played their style and guarded Notre Dame into difficult spots and harder shots, but they also played Notre Dame’s style and scored at a rate that was difficult to counter and at times that were harder to stomach. Whenever the Fighting Irish found a rally, the Mountaineers found a big shot.
And if you were to ask them, it wasn’t difficult to predict that, either.
“We had a sense of urgency before the game even started,” guard Daxter Miles said. “We looked in each other’s eyes, and you could see it — a nice spark — before we even got on the court. You could just see it. Everybody was up and ready to play.”
The words “according to plan” come to mind. If you walked around the locker room Friday, you heard a preview of what followed. The Mountaineers had to do certain things — and to have certain things fall their way … like “V.J. Beachem has a bad day.” — to win the game. Look at that box score. That’s what it was going to take.
The Mountaineers are now 10-2 when Dax Miles reaches double figures. He really is a fulcrum for how they want to play — as opposed to what they want to do, which are two different things … think who more than how — on offense and defense, and on Saturday, you saw the backcourt very much at its potential.
“We have the best group of guards in the country,” Carter said. “We truly believe that. When it’s time to play, we go out there and give it our all. We put forth 100 percent.”
He said the proverbial chip remains on his shoulder, especially because the guards have been lauded for their defense more than their offense.
“A wise man once said, ‘Remember where you came from,’ ” Carter said. “We always keep that in the back of our minds. For the three of us, it wasn’t an easy path to get to West Virginia. We had to grind it out every step of the way. We just wanted to get out on that court and prove things to the other schools that missed out on us.”
The offense was excellent, too. The guards were in the middle of it, and not merely scoring. Eight assists — and three from Miles — mattered in the long run. The ball didn’t stop. But they made huge shots, too. The sequence when Phillip and Carter answered Notre Dame 3s with makes of their own in the second half was crucial. Carter’s late 3 to put the lead back at nine points had a bit of finality to it.
The Mountaineers forced four turnovers in the second half and committed twice as many. They took 12 fewer shots than Notre Dame after halftime. But when they held onto the ball, they made it count.
And it would appear the two buses that took WVU to Bufgood thing the bus had room for WVU’s offense. It made the trip. Back-to-back games with five players in double figures. That happened once in the regular season — and that was the first game. An early score from Carter set the school record for most team points in a season. And against Notre Dame, WVU did something pretty rare.
“First couple years here, they thought of us as defensive players, you know?” guard Tarik Phillip said. “But 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 Mountaineers made a season-high 57.1 percent of their 3-point attempts, half of their 54 shots and 80.8 percent of their foul shots. It’s the first time since 2014 and the eighth time in school history WVU shot at least 50 percent from the floor, 50 percent from 3-point range and 80 percent from the foul line.
“I didn’t expect them to shoot it from outside as well,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. “I thought we could play a little more zone and make them make more 3, and they made every big three-point shot.”