In a matchup of opposing forces, one team imposed their will on the other and forced them to play out of their comfort zone for 40 minutes. Unfortunately for Notre Dame this afternoon they were not that team. West Virginia’s relentless full court pressure catapulted the Mountaineers to a 10-0 lead to start the game and Notre Dame was never able to play comfortable Saturday before finally falling 83-71 to end their Tournament run far earlier than anyone had hoped for.
Notre Dame averaged the 2nd fewest turnovers a game in the nation this season at 9.3 a contest while West Virginia’s pressure defense forced the most. By halftime of today’s second round contest between the two, Notre Dame had committed 10 turnovers alone as they never settled into their offense and never could figure out how to beat the press.
Even simple things like inbounding the ball were a challenge for Notre Dame on a Saturday. A prime example of this came in the early second half when Notre Dame had cut the lead to five points before West Virginia nailed a long two and then stole a sloppy inbounds pass that they immediately converted into a thunderous slam dunk.
Just like that, the lead was back to nine points. That was the story of the game though. Every single time Notre Dame would get within four of five points, West Virginia would immediately respond with a run of their own and before you knew it, the lead was back to nine or ten points.
With just under 15:00 minutes remaining in the game, one of Bonzie Colson’s four three pointers cut the West Virginia lead to four. They responded with a three of their own. Notre Dame came down the court for another three, this time from Matt Farrell. West Virginia responded with another three of their own. Farrell tried to respond with another three, but came up short. West Virginia ran down the floor for their third three pointer in a row and just like that, the four point lead was suddenly back to 10 points in the matter of two minutes.
Bonzie Colson was the only reason Notre Dame stayed in this game as long as they did. Notre Dame’s under-sized center played with immeasurable heart this afternoon. The junior led Notre Dame with 27 points including hitting 4 of 5 three point attempts and he did so while playing the final nine minutes of the game with four fouls.
Notre Dame did not get much help from the rest of its roster. Steve Vasturia was the only other player in double figures for the Irish with 11 points. The rest of the Irish roster hit just 6 of 23 the entire game punctuated by VJ Beachem’s 1 of 9 three point shooting.
Beachem’s cold day shooting (and that is putting it mildly) capped a rather unforgettable and short lived tournament run for the senior. On the day Beachem shot just 2 of 14. This a game after he shot 1 of 9 in Notre Dame’s narrow win over Princeton in the 1st round. Things weren’t much better on the defensive end for Beachem. The senior guard played some suspect closeout defense with just under three minutes to go and Notre Dame still in the game leading to a West Virginia three as the shot clock expired. A stop there and Notre Dame would have had the ball down six with 2:40 to go.
Beachem wasn’t the only player to put a damper on a potential Notre Dame run. With Notre Dame nine points with just over 8:00 remaining the Irish were gifted a turnover by the Mountaineers. Fresh, guard TJ Gibbs showed his youth and inexperience by slapping the ball out of West Virginia’s hands following the call and was whistled for a technical foul. West Virginia, a team that shot 68% from the free throw line on the season, responded by hitting both attempts. On the day the Mountaineers were 21-26 from the line.
West Virginia did’t just shoot well from the free throw line though. While everyone other than Colson struggled from three point range for Notre Dame, the Mountainers were on fire from three – especially in the second half. The Mountaineers connected on 8 of 14 three pointers including a ridiculous (and backbreaking) 5 for 5 in the second half.
The loss sends Notre Dame out of the tournament on the first weekend after two straight seasons of advancing to the Elite 8. Notre Dame’s chance of making it back to the Elite 8 hinged on the West Virginia matchup as the rest of the West bracket was actually set up quite nicely for Notre Dame to make another run. The Irish, however, were just unable to solve that West Virginia press and now head home early.
Saturday was the final game in a Notre Dame uniform for at least two players – Beachem and Steve Vasturia. Colson, just a junior, could come back to Notre Dame for a senior year as many think he will. There is still the very real chance that, however, that Saturday could have been the final time we all saw him in a Notre Dame uniform.