MORGANTOWN - Truck Bryant and Joe Mazzulla knew going into Saturday's game with Notre Dame that the Irish weren't really equipped to handle a pair of guards who could make things happen. The Irish are strong in a lot of areas, but athleticism and on-the-ball defense in the backcourt aren't their forte.
Here's the catch, though. Bryant and Mazzulla hadn't exactly been making things happen lately. Mazzulla hadn't been able to really get to the basket and score since back-to-back 18- and 16-point games against Louisville and Cincinnati at the end of January. Bryant, of course, has been in a shooting slump dating back to New Year's Day that almost defied description.
So as much as the opportunity presented itself against Notre Dame, there was certainly no guarantee that West Virginia's backcourt could take advantage of it. It would take the kind of performances from both that had been sorely lacking.
Suffice it to say, this was the opportune time to turn things around. And Bryant and Mazzulla did just that.
Bryant's shots finally started falling (his 24 points included four 3-pointers) and Mazzulla both scored and dished (16 points and seven assists) as the Mountaineers used a dominant second half to beat No. 8 Notre Dame 72-58 in front of a crowd of 12,298 at the Coliseum.
The win not only bolstered West Virginia's stock in the Big East standings, it served to tighten those standings even more. West Virginia (17-9, 8-6 Big East) still remains solidly in the middle of those jumbled standings, and now the gap is even smaller. Notre Dame (21-5, 10-4) remains in second place, but the gap between the Irish and ninth place in the league is just two games.
"We knew they couldn't guard the ball and we wanted to take it right at them,'' said Bryant, who came within a point of matching his career high. "I knew I could go by all of them anytime, even [Ben] Hansbrough. It's the same team every year, just different players.''
It worked pretty much from the outset, although it was difficult to tell from the score. Mazzulla had some success driving to the basket in the first half, but overall West Virginia shot just 28.6 percent in the first 20 minutes. Bryant was his usual 0-for-4. He, Kevin Jones, Casey Mitchell and Dalton Pepper were a combined 3-for-18 shooting. Notre Dame led at the break 27-26.
"I told them at halftime I didn't know if we could play any harder than we had in the first half,'' coach Bob Huggins would say later. "I also told them I didn't know if we could shoot it any worse.''
In the second half, the Mountaineers finally began hitting shots. Trailing 31-28 less than two minutes into the second half, Bryant sandwiched a pair of 3-pointers around a twisting Mazzulla drive to the basket and a 36-31 lead. About four minutes later, Jones knocked down Carleton Scott in the post and got a layup and, a possession later, Jonnie West hit a long 3-pointer in transition and it was 45-35.
When Jones hit a 3 from the key to start a 12-2 run that made the score 57-42, it was all but over when Bryant hit another 3-pointer to end the run.
He hopes it ended his shooting slump, too.
"I was like, 'Here we go again [after his 0-for-4 first half],' but [assistant] Coach [Billy] Hahn told me I was going to start making some in the second half,'' Bryant said. "And I did. It's been tough. When you're missing shots, that's all you can think about.''
Back at the beginning of the season, this is what West Virginia had hoped to see from a lineup that featured two point guards. Mazzulla was supposed to be the penetrator who could score and create offense with his drives and his passes, while Bryant would be the outside threat who could also handle the ball. But Bryant's shooting slump, more than anything else, has effectively nullified any advantage to having two point guards on the floor.
This is the way it was supposed to work.
"I think he's more confident playing off the ball and today he made shots,'' Mazzulla said of Bryant, who over the last 13 games was 25-for-106 (23.6 percent) from the field and had made just 10-of-47 3-pointers (21.3 percent). "And when he shoots well it helps my games, too. It opens things up in the middle when they have to stay on him.''
In the second half, Bryant was 5-for-7 shooting and made four of his six 3-point tries. He also made nine straight free throws at one point and finished 10-for-12. It was easily his best game since he scored a career-high 25 at Marquette on Jan. 1 and then immediately went cold.
Mazzulla, meanwhile, was busy on both ends of the floor, driving and running the offense on one end and chasing Hansbrough on the other. Hansbrough finished with 19 points, but he was only 7-for-18 shooting. With about 21/2 minutes to play and Notre Dame still within striking distance at 68-56, Bryant took Hansbrough to the basket and fouled him out of the game.
"Mazzulla was good early, getting them confident,'' said Notre Dame coach Mike Brey. "We had a hard time keeping him out of the lane pretty much for all 40 minutes, even though we put some different guys on him and tried to play some zone.''
Jones also came up big for West Virginia, scoring nine of his 14 points during the second-half stretch in which the Mountaineers took command. He also finished with 10 rebounds, as did John Flowers.
After shooting that 28.6 percent in the first half, West Virginia shot 53.8 percent in the second, making 9-of-12 (and 4-of-5 3s) to start the half.
Because of that solid shooting, everything else finally fell into place.
"When you shoot 25, 26 percent it kind of gets you discouraged,'' Mazzulla said, referring not just to the first half but the past month. "It gets in your head and you don't feel like getting back on defense. Making some shots feels a lot better.''
The Mountaineers are off now until Thursday, when they visit No. 4 Pitt, which was upset by St. John's Saturday at Madison Square Garden.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickm...@aol.com.
West Virginia 72, Notre Dame 58
Notre Dame (21-5, 10-4)
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