BUFFALO, N.Y. — Snapping a three-year shooting slump in NCAA tournaments, Jevon Carter scored 24 points and No. 4 seed West Virginia led wire-to-wire in beating Notre Dame 83-71 for a berth in the Sweet 16.
It’s the fourth time the Mountaineers have reached the tourney’s second week under coach Bob Huggins, who reiterated after the game “I love Buffalo,” a testament to his teams going unbeaten in the city dating back to 1993.
Huggins hopes to develop a similar love for San Jose next Thursday when facing the West Region’s No. 1 seed Gonzaga.
West Virginia (28-8) received solid play from throughout its backcourt, including 16 points by Daxter Miles and 12 from sixth man Tarik Phillip. But the point guard Carter was exceptional, making 4-of-5 from 3-point range and playing 36 minutes without a turnover.
His step-back 3 with 2:35 remaining made for a 75-66 lead and proved to be a dagger after the Irish defended the length of the shot-clock.
After being fouled with 28 seconds, Carter pounded a dribble and summoned the section of Mountaineers fans to rise up behind the team bench.
“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. Sometimes it worked, but we going to put forth 100 percent and we’re going to live and die with it.”
Bonzie Colson scored 27 points — 13 of those after picking up his fourth foul with 9:47 left — though he alone couldn’t keep Notre Dame (26-10) in the fight.
“I don’t think you’re saving him for the stretch run. The stretch run was the whole second half, trying to dig out of a hole,” said Irish coach Mike Brey.
“He did a good job not fouling. He was unbelievable today. He puts the team on his back and he’s not 100 percent. That ankle is bothering him. That’s one of the great performances, just trying to carry a team on a bad wheel.”
Elijah Macon and Esa Ahmad scored 11 each for West Virginia, which forced 14 turnovers, shot 50 percent and out rebounded the Irish 34-28.
Though Notre Dame shot 17-of-17 at the foul line, it couldn’t get there enough to make a difference. West Virginia committed a below-norm 18 fouls compared to the Irish’s 21.
“(The officials) let us play and we did a good job of moving our feet and not making dumb fouls,” said Mountaineers assistant Erik Martin. “And I don’t want to get myself in trouble, but there are some other benefits to not playing in the Big 12 anymore.”
As former Big East members met for the first time in five years, West Virginia bolted ahead 10-0 and forced Brey to take timeout at the 16:47 mark.
“They were sleepwalking,” Phillip said.
The lead reached 15-4 before the Irish countered with an 8-of-11 shooting tear and pulled within 32-29. But the least turnover-prone team in Division I surpassed its season average of 9.3 in the opening half, rushing to attack — or escape — Press Virginia.
That helped the Mountaineers attempt 35 first-half shots to Notre Dame’s 23, and Carter capitalized by scoring 13 to forge a 42-35 lead.
That reversed Carter’s career-long trend of shooting 8-for-38 in five NCAA tournament games.
Teammates and coaches spoke of the junior doing individual work on his shot for three or four hours daily, and Carter said “Sometimes if I’m not feeling it, six or seven hours.”
Responding to curious looks from reporters about such extended commitment, Carter said: “I’m in Morgantown. I got to school and play ball — that’s all there really is for me to do.”
Notre Dame closed the game with 14 turnovers and never drew closer than a six-point gap in the final 18 minutes.
After making 4-of-8 from long distance in the first half, the Irish went 6-of-20 from 3 afterward. Forward VJ Beacham, the team leader in 3-point baskets, made only 1-of-9.
“I thought our start really hurt us. We were in a 10-0 hole, so you’re kind of digging out against them the whole day,” 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 trio of Carter, Miles and Phillip certainly made enough, shooting 17-of-29 overall and 7-of-10 from 3.
Said Philip: “First couple years here, they thought of us as defensive players, you know? But Coach (Huggins) and the coaching staff instilled a lot of confidence in us and helped us develop our offensive game and we became pretty good offensive players.”
Steve Vasturia added 11 points for Notre Dame, which had a quiet game from point guard Matt Farrell with eight.
West Virginia’s traps and Carter’s man-to-man defense received the credit.
“He wants to take the opposing point guard out of every game,” said WVU forward Nathan Adrian.
Huggins bid a winning farewell yet again to the City of Neighbors.
“Listen. I love Buffalo,” he said. “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. And we just won two now. I love Buffalo. Anytime you want to invite us to come back, we’ll come back.”