True story: Tarik Phillip was in the locker room of the Sprint Center following the loss to Iowa State and was convinced that his team was close — not getting close, but already close — and a setback against the Cyclones was no reason to fret. There was nothing to worry about … except the element of time.
(Also true: Phillip wasn’t entirely clear on the pre-game performances Saturday, when the KeyBank Center allowed for the Canadian and United States national anthems. He fixed a wide-eyed stare off into the distance, swayed side to side and did not appear to be aware of anything around him. “There were two, right?” he said later when I asked if he had any idea what was going on at that moment. “I don’t know. I was just ready to play.” I can’t imagine how hard it is for him to stir like he does and then sit and then channel that storm when he checks in for the first time.)
Time is a team’s staunchest ally and strongest adversary in the postseason. But nothing is as fickle, either. WVU knows this, and though this team knows times do change and these times are better than others, the Mountaineers are not letting time change them. They’re about to embark on another business trip, and they’ll treat this one like the last one.
“What we did was everything we talked about in practice and on film,” forward Elijah Macon said. “Everything we were supposed to do, we did. We slipped up a couple times, but we made the game hard, and that was the No. 1 plan.”
The entire experience was not without challenges. A winter storm scrapped the original and more convenient travel plan and forced the team to leave campus a day early and bus instead of fly to upstate New York.
Three days later,the Mountaineers beat Bucknell, despite some brief back-and-forth exchanges, and shifted to a taller task to prepare for Notre Dame, a curious counterpart for WVU’s press in that the Fighting Irish committed turnovers less frequently than everyone else in the country.
That distinction wasn’t much of a factor in the game, and even though Notre Dame had only four turnovers in the second half and took 12 more shots than WVU, it was the Mountaineers who played the exceptional offense and made the most momentous baskets to be certain the lead belonged to them from start to finish.
“That’s not an easy thing to do, to stay that consistent throughout the game, and that’s something we struggled with throughout the year,” forward Nate Adrian said. “Doing that was a good sign for us.”
Carey said his team “quit playing” during the game, and bemoaned the injuries that left his team thin all season long.
“We wear down, or somebody’s not scoring, they don’t play hard on the other end,” Carey said. “We just don’t have the bench to put other people in and correct it. That’s why I’m so frustrated. I’ve gotta to live with a lot of stuff I don’t normally live with because we just don’t have the numbers.”
The Terps never allowed West Virginia closer than 12 points after halftime. Martin missed her final 12 shots and didn’t score a point in the second or third quarters.
Maryland center Brionna Jones, who had just four points and sporadic offensive touches in the first quarter, came alive to finish with a game-high 22 points and 11 rebounds.
“I’m very proud of [our seniors] and I’m proud of our team, [but] we didn’t have it tonight,” Carey said.
“We just didn’t play hard enough and do the things we need to do to compete against a great team like Maryland.”
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.”
You are looking live at a glamorous location along press row inside the KeyBank Center, site of today’s second-round game on the third day of the 2017 NCAA tournament. Today, it’s West Virginia, the No. 4 seed in the West region, and the No. 5 seed, Notre Dame.
The winner goes to the Sweet Sixteen and plays Thursday all the way out in San Jose, California, against either either Gonzaga or Northwestern.
The Mountaineers are 3-0 in this building. The Fighting Irish are the only team in the country to make the Elite Eight the past two seasons. WVU coach Bob Huggins is 7-9 in the second round. Notre Dame coach Mike Brey is 3-4, and the storied school has never started 2-0 in three straight NCAA tournaments. Brey is 5-4 against Huggins with one win when Huggins was at Cincinnati. The series is 4-4 since Huggins has been at his alma mater.
“They only play six or seven guys, and it’s really six,” WVU guard Teyvon Myers said. “I feel like my 10 are better than any 10 in the country. That’s just how I feel. If my 10 guys go battle their six or seven guys, I think we should be fine as long as we get them out of their comfort zone.”
The Fighting Irish average 77.5 points per game and get 59.6 points per game from four starters. The Mountaineers know this, too.
“That’s too many points,” WVU forward Elijah Macon said. “I feel like if we can take two of those guys out of there, we have a big advantage.” Notre Dame only uses four players off the bench, and the Mountaineers are suspicious of that. Two of the reserves average less than eight minutes.
Yo, no mock turtleneck for Mike Brey. He’s changed conferences, and he’s changed his wardrobe, but he’s not stopped being one of the best and funniest coaches for an interview or a news conference. “I have tenure now at Notre Dame, so I’m really loose,” he said.
Maybe I was the one that got the turtleneck popular. That was my look. And when I got to Notre Dame, they said, ‘Did you really think that through?’ I said, ‘I was in America East. It’s a bus league. You wear a sweatshirt on a bus when you beat Boston University and you bus six hours.’
So it was comfortable and I stayed with it until my daughter said, ‘Dad, that’s got to go. That’s out. That’s got to go.’ But there’s no way I can put the tie on. You’re right. Bob and I were kidding at the meeting and said, we run into each other, two guys not wearing ties. I don’t know how the NCAA feels about that, the whole decorum rule, if we’ll get a fine, or whatever.
Huggins was fine, by the way. But Brey brought a ladder and went to another level. He has the oddest and fondest memories of Morgantown as well as a notable super fan, and Brey explained why.
Two years ago, you suffered from Bobby Hurley Fatigue Syndrome as West Virginia defeated — ahem — Buffalo in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Hurley is now just a guy in the Pac-12 at Arizona State, but his name remains above what the Mountaineers do in this event.
Notre Dame coach Mike Brey, who was an assistant at Duke during the Hurley years, put his point guard, the very good Matt Farrell, above Hurley.