West Virginia is the highest-seeded team remaining in the Big East tournament, but that doesn’t mean its road to a championship will be any easier than it started out. Especially with surging Notre Dame in the way.
Coming off a last-second quarterfinal victory, the third-seeded and seventh-ranked Mountaineers try to snap the Irish’s six-game winning streak in Friday night’s semifinal at Madison Square Garden.
After watching Syracuse (No. 1 seed), Pittsburgh (No. 2) and Villanova (No. 4) each lose after receiving a double bye into the quarterfinals, West Virginia (25-6) barely survived after Newark, N.J., native Da’Sean Butler banked in a 3-pointer at the buzzer to give the Mountaineers a 54-51 win over No. 11 seed Cincinnati on Thursday.
“So much for the double byes, huh? I do think there’s some advantage to being able to play a little bit,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said after the Irish’s 50-45 win over Pitt on Thursday.
The victory sets up a rematch with No. 7 seed Notre Dame (23-10), which beat the Mountaineers 70-68 at home Jan. 9. The winner will face either eighth-seeded and 22nd-ranked Georgetown or fifth-seeded Marquette in Saturday night’s championship. The Hoyas are the only semifinalist that’s won a Big East tournament title.
West Virginia reached the finals in 2005 but lost to Syracuse. Notre Dame, which beat Seton Hall 68-56 on Wednesday, has won consecutive tournament games for the first time since joining the Big East for the 1995-96 season. While there is more on the line than their last meeting, this one will have to go a long way to top that one.
Luke Harangody had 24 points for the Irish, who shot 53.5 percent and led by 20 before holding on to win in South Bend. Unlike Thursday, Butler’s 3-pointer at the buzzer rimmed out after he hit one to beat Marquette on Dec. 29.
“He has made shots like that before. It almost went in,” West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said after that contest.
Coming off the bench for a third straight games since missing five with a bruised knee, Harangody finished with 12 points in 22 minutes against Pitt, but hit three key free throws in the final three minutes. The Irish shot 52.9 percent and held the Panthers to 38.6 percent after limiting Seton Hall to 34.5 percent a day earlier.
The senior, who entered the tournament as the nation’s second leading scorer at 23.3 points per game, had 20 with 10 rebounds against Seton Hall and is happy to contribute as the Irish have all but secured their spot in the NCAA tournament.
“I think every day (the knee is) getting a little better,” Harangody said. “This run we made at the end of the season, it was pretty special. These guys have played great without me. Now to make a run in the Big East tournament is great as well.”
Harangody has played well against West Virginia, averaging 26.5 points and 10.5 boards in his last five games versus the Mountaineers.
Though Notre Dame won the last meeting, West Virginia beat the Irish 74-62 in the second round of last season’s tournament. Harangody had 27 points, while Butler scored 20 for the Mountaineers.
Butler finished with 15 points and sophomore Kevin Jones led the way with 17 as West Virginia overcame a 35.0-percent shooting night against Cincinnati to win for the sixth time in seven games and reach the semifinals for the third straight year.
“You can’t just bury yourself and sulk and things like that,” Butler said of the team’s poor shooting effort. “You have to keep playing through it.”
Jones had 17 points and 10 rebounds against Notre Dame in January.
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