BUFFALO, N.Y. — For the past two seasons, Mike Brey saw his Irish iced by Final Four teams.
Did Saturday extend the streak?
Brey labeled Jevon Carter “a stud,” called Bob Huggins “brilliant” and offered this endorsement on West Virginia overall:
“They’re really good. They can play for a while. They got the look.”
Looking up after 3 minutes and 7 seconds, Brey and Notre Dame trailed 10-zip. Plenty of time left to play catchup, especially against a Mountaineers bunch that surrenders double-digit leads faster than the Clinton campaign.
Only not this time. The kids who, surprisingly, came bouncing into their 8 a.m. walk-through weren’t going to nap on the fifth-seeded Irish, weren’t going to let the game become contested at the end. West Virginia never trailed, and Notre Dame never possessed the ball with a chance to lead.
An 83-71 second-round victory shifted WVU’s focus from Buffalo to San Jose while making them forget the offensive stupor they left behind in Kansas City.
Think back now, all the way back, to eight days ago and that 16-point first half against Kansas State. No doubt Brey and his staff scouted film of West Virginia’s 26-percent shooting, and it’s 28-percent second half against Texas the previous game.
At no point during the Big 12 tournament did they seem capable of becoming the highest-scoring Mountaineers team ever. Yet the record became theirs Saturday, appropriately enough on a 3-pointer by Jevon Carter that made the early lead 13-4.
He sank 4-of-5 from behind the arc and combine with Tarik Phillip and Daxter Miles to shoot 7-of-10.
When a shootout sequence briefly erupted in the second half, Notre Dame hit back-to-back 3s to pull within 51-47. But Phillip and Carter were answering with three straight themselves and — BANG! — the margin ballooned to 10 again.
“I thought we could play a little more zone and make them make more 3s, but they made every big 3-point shot,” Brey said.
For their two-win tour in Buffalo, the Mountaineers hit 13-of-25 of 3s — exceptional both for the high percentage of accuracy and the relatively low volume of attempts. Making 3s didn’t make West Virginia delusional about where its offensive identity truly resides — barreling toward the basket.
“We only took 14 3-pointers today and that’s a good number for us,” assistant coach Erik Martin said. “We don’t need to chuck up a bunch of 3s. We’re not that type of team, though some of our players sometimes think we are.”
We’ve seen games where West Virginia lost its way amid a haze of jumpers: Took 27 and 33 from behind the arc during losses to Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. Fired up 28 vs. K-State on that atrociously stagnant night in KC.
Pardon the talking heads for not knowing better, because Press Virginia’s defense dominates the chatter, but there’s offense in them hills. WVU ranks 25th in KenPom efficiency and 19th in scoring at 82 per game.
When Huggins fielded a pregame question regarding whether his guys could score with Notre Dame, he pointed out: “We’re averaging 82 a game. Now, there’s days, honestly, I don’t know how we get to 82, but somehow we do.”
They scored 86 and 83 on their way through Bucknell and Notre Dame, scoring 40-plus in every half and showing free-throw touch at 42-of-55.
Esa Ahmad made all four free throws and both second-half shots, a 3 from the wing and punishing dunk off a turnover. The West Virginia sophomore carries ambitions both grandiose — “This state deserves a national championship,” — and one far more modest — trying to find some decent pancakes.
The ones he left on his plate Saturday at the team hotel were too gooey. “You’ve got to cook ‘em a little,” he said.
We’ll see what breakfast options await at the Sweet 16, and if Brey is right, perhaps beyond.