SOUTH BEND – Notre Dame hit 21 of its first 31 field goal attempts and used a 20 to 4 run to start the second half, annihilating West Virginia, 71-44.
The Irish led just 30-28 at the break but forced either a turnover or a missed field goal on 13 of West Virginia’s first 15 second half possessions. Jerian Grant scored eight points during the aforementioned decisive span, while Scott Martin and Eric Atkins both added five to pull away from the Mountaineers, taking a 50-32 lead with 13:00 remaining in the contest.
The win was Notre Dame’s ninth straight in Big East play–a program record–and its 34th in its last 35 home games. West Virginia has lost six of eight including two vs. Notre Dame over the last two weeks to put itself on the NCAA Bubble at 7-8 in league play.
“We really defended in the second half,” said Irish head coach Mike Brey. “I think we got them off the backboard after the first six or seven minutes. I think they had six offensive rebounds in the first six minutes.
“Our offensive efficiency was excellent in the second half,” he added.
West Virginia connected on just six field goals in the second stanza while Notre Dame knocked down 15 of its 25 attempts over the final 20 minutes, outscoring their guests 41-16 in the second half. The Irish shot better than 61 percent for the game (27-44).
“When it comes time to put someone away, this group has shown a cruelty to go for the jugular,” Brey offered. “That’s what I love about us and I think that’s something that can really help us in March.”
Grant led the Irish with 20 points, hitting 8 of 11 field goal attempts including 4 of 5 shots from long range. Two Grant steals and multiple tipped balls resulted in four technical fast break buckets for the Irish, though Notre Dame’s secondary break was a difference-maker over the game’s final 30 minutes.
Trailing 15-11 at the 10:58 mark, Brey expressed his displeasure with official Pat Driscoll over a series of questionable foul calls, earning a technical foul in the process.
“Coach Brey kind of felt like we were playing sluggish,” Grant noted of the moment. “It kind of woke us up.”
Brey admitted the outburst was part plan, part anger…and he almost earned an early shower along with his first technical foul of the season.
“I don’t get many. What have I had, four or five in 12 years?” Brey noted of the rarity of the moment. “I thought it was a physical game and maybe (those) weren’t the greatest calls in a physical game. But I was out of the (coach's) box, and I deserved it, and I was close to getting thrown out…If he had thrown me out, I wouldn’t have had an argument.
“It got our building going a little. Maybe it was helpful from that standpoint.”
Team-oriented Irish win individual battles
Sophomore point guard Eric Atkins controlled the tempo throughout, finishing with 13 points, eight assists, and three steals, but the top effort of the evening likely belonged to senior Scott Martin, who once again held lead Big East MVP candidate Kevin Jones to six field goals and five points below his season average.
“I wanted to do my work early (in a possession),” Martin noted of his defensive plan. “Get him off the block and make sure he was catching the ball at 17 feet; the three-point line, that area, so it wouldn’t be easy for him to just back me down, because I was giving up 40 pounds or so.
“I just didn’t want him to catch the ball in his comfort zones. I went over film quite a bit and I knew I could kind of get him out of his spot.”
Martin finished with 15 points on just seven field goal attempts, adding six rebounds to tie for the team high.
Jones led the visitors with 15 on 12 shots and grabbed eight boards, while classmate Darryl "Truck" Bryant scored 10, though Bryant missed eight of 11 shots from the floor. The senior point guard finished three for 16 from the field vs. the Irish in Notre Dame’s two-game February sweep of the Mountaineers. He scored 24 points in a West Virginia win last February 19, ending Notre Dame’s seven-game winning streak at the time.
Irish junior center Jack Cooley saw his double-double streak end at four games. Cooley finished with 13 points and six rebounds with three blocked shots in 34 minutes. He held surging Mountaineers center Deniz Kilicli to eight points on 11 attempts. Kilicli had scored 81 over the last five outings.
For these previously undervalued and nearly forgotten Irish, consecutive win No. 9 was an honor.
“It’s very special. It really is,” said Brey post-game. “And they really wanted that record. I think it’ll be a great story in the history of our basketball program. When they come back to reunions, it’s something they’ll reminisce about and we certainly want to see if we can keep riding it past nine.”
Brey’s first Notre Dame team, the 2000-01 Irish, won eight straight conference games. His 2010-11 squad won seven straight and both the 2006-07 and 2009-10 teams won six consecutive Big East matchups.
Notre Dame heads to Madison Square Garden this weekend for a noon (ET) tip-off vs. St. John’s. They’ll stay east to take on current Big East fourth-place squad Georgetown for a Big Monday battle on ESPN.
The Irish conclude the regular season next Friday with a Senior Night home game vs. 2-13 Providence.
“This is a tough weekend for us,” said Brey of the two road games in 54 hours. “Saturday in St. John’s; Monday down there (at Georgetown). This is another great challenge for a team that kind of loves challenges.”