West Virginia used a 17-4 run in the early stages of the second half to take command, and weathered the emotional storm that came shortly thereafter -- including technical fouls on both teams’ head coaches that came as a result of questionable foul calls that had made for a near-riotous atmosphere inside the arena -- to cruise to a much-needed 72-58 win over the Irish.
The Mountaineers (17-9, 8-6) had made their game-changing run just before that wild spell of several minutes, and the crowd of 12,298 was already feeling the possibility of an upset after Jonnie West hit a 3-pointer to cap the spurt and make it 45-35 with about 14:00 to play.
But fans inside the Coliseum knew there was plenty of time for a comeback, and they were as apoplectic as WVU head coach Bob Huggins was when no foul was called on a physical sequence near the basket just minutes later.
Huggins started to run out onto the court and had to be restrained by his associate head coach Larry Harrison as he screamed in anger at referee Tim Higgins. The veteran official, who had already drawn consternation from West Virginia fans for some questionable decisions earlier, quickly called Huggins for a technical, and the volume inside the Coliseum rose further still.
“I thought there was a foul,” Huggins said. “I kind of expressed that maybe too vehemently ... I don’t know, you’re not supposed to have any emotion, I guess.”
The Irish’s Tim Abromaitis stepped to the foul line and calmly made both ensuing free throws to bring his team back within eight points.
But the whistles started to turn the Mountaineers’ way thereafter, and Notre Dame coach Mike Brey earned a technical foul of his own after Higgins called a blocking foul on his star player, Ben Hansbrough, on what appeared to be a charge on WVU’s Joe Mazzulla.
The energy level in the building reached a boiling point.
But surprisingly, it was the No. 7 Irish who were so clearly rattled at the big moment, and a West Virginia team that has struggled to fulfill the promise many believed it had after a Final Four season a year ago unleashed weeks’ worth of pent-up frustration, building a lead of as many as 15 points in short order and never allowing the visitors to get back within single digits.
“I thought we played with a lot of enthusiasm throughout the whole game,” Huggins said. “That is probably as hard as we have played since the Purdue game for 40 minutes. I think everyone we put in played hard.”
Tenacity alone hadn’t been enough for the Mountaineers in games against other highly-ranked opponents this season, and time and time again WVU had written a similar script in games against the Big East Conference’s best teams: it almost always played well defensively but failed to score enough points to earn victories.
That changed on Saturday, as Huggins’ team finally found a way to make shots -- something the veteran head coach has said, time and time again, has been his team’s biggest deficiency this season.
For only the second time this season (and the first time in Big East play), West Virginia had three players score 14 points or more. Truck Bryant led them, as the junior guard had 24. Most encouragingly, he came out of what has been nearly a season-long shooting funk, hitting four of his seven attempts from 3-point range.
He was joined in that effort by Kevin Jones, who made another two trifectas on the way to a 14-point, 10-rebound effort. Point guard Joe Mazzulla helped set things up, attacking the lane in a way the Mountaineers have struggled to do almost all season long, scoring 16 points and dishing out seven assists largely as the result of dribble penetration.
“Truck got us going, which helps,” Huggins said. “He got some step-in shots and he got it going ... it’s his best game in a long time.”
“Mazzulla was good early, getting them confident,” Brey added. “We had a hard time keeping him out of the lane, and that continued really for 40 minutes, even though we put some different guys on him and tried to play some zone.”
The senior’s play was one reason WVU kept the contest close in the first half, despite duplicating some of the poor offensive numbers that have plagued it in recent weeks.
Notre Dame (21-5, 10-4) only led 27-26 at halftime, and its biggest advantage of the game was a mere five points. That was all true despite the fact that the Mountaineers shot only 28.6 percent from the field in the opening 20 minutes, including a 22.2 percent accuracy mark from 3-point range.
“I told them at halftime that I didn’t know if we could play any harder than we were playing,” Huggins said. “But I didn’t think we could play any worse offensively than we had.”
They made up for that in the second half, hitting 53.8 percent of their shots (14-of-26) and 54.5 percent of their trifectas (6-of-11).
“We all get tired of watching misses ... but you’ve got to keep shooting it until you get back in that groove,” Huggins said.
“We just made some shots. It sounds simple, but that’s kind of what it is. Whoever makes shots, they look a whole lot better.”
It was the Irish who had an uncharacteristically rough outing. Both Abromaitis Hansbrough, two of Brey’s senior leaders and his best players, fouled out for the first time all season.
Hansbrough had 19 points, but he also took a game-high 18 shots to get to that number -- seven more field goal attempts than anyone else on the floor. Abromaitis struggled to a 2-of-9 performance from the field and scored only nine.
The win should bolster West Virginia’s résumé enough to all but assure the Mountaineers a spot in the upcoming NCAA Tournament, barring a complete collapse down the stretch.
But before they worry about the postseason, they will continue their grind in the Big East, facing their arch-rival and the league leader, No. 2 Pitt, on Thursday at the Petersen Events Center. The Panthers lost earlier Saturday at St. John’s.