BUFFALO–The stage is set for a matchup between two former Big East foes on Saturday afternoon.
Fourth-seeded West Virginia University and No. 5 Notre Dame will square off at 12:10 p.m. at the KeyBank Center for a chance to advance to the Sweet 16.
Both teams have found new homes in different conferences but the thrill of their meeting still exists for fans.
The Fighting Irish (26-9) hung on to defeat Princeton 60-58 on Thursday afternoon and the Mountaineers (27-8) overpowered Bucknell 86-80.
“They don’t let us pick (the matchups),” WVU head coach Bob Huggins said. “If you’re asking me, would we have picked them, absolutely not. We’re going to try and do the same thing to them that they do to us. We’re going to try to create numbers in the half court, and we’re going to try to take transition when it’s there.”
The Mountaineers known for its smoldering defense. However, the Mountaineers lacked their usual defensive dominance against the Bison.
We’ve got to play a little better defense, but we’ll fix it,” WVU forward Nathan Adrian said after the victory.
WVU blew a 15-point lead in the first half and a 12-point lead in the second. The Mountaineers outmanned Bucknell on the glass, outrebounding the Bison 42-32.
WVU relies on forcing turnovers to create offense but they only forced 13, well below their season-average.
The Mountaineers lead the nation in turnover margin (8.2), turnovers forced (20.4) and steals (10.4). WVU ranks third in scoring margin (15.6), fifth in offensive rebounds (14.3), 16th in assists (16.7) and 21st in scoring offense (82.0).
Earlier this season, the Mountaineers forced then-No. 1 Baylor into committing a season-high 29 turnovers.
WVU forces opponents to turn it over on 27.5 percent of their possessions, which is the best in the country.
However, Notre Dame has the lowest turnover rate in the country (13.8 percent of possessions). In their win over the Tigers, the Irish matched a school record for fewest turnovers in an NCAA Tournament game, committing just six.
Bonzie Colson (17.5 points, 10.1 rebounds) led Notre Dame past Princeton with 18 points. Despite nursing a sore ankle, the 6-foot-5, 225-pound forward grabbed eight boards.
“He’s a great player for them,” forward Esa Ahmad said. “As long as we come to play and play defense, I think we can stop him.”
V.J. Beachem is second on the team in scoring, averaging 14.7 points per contest. Matt Farrell (14.2 points, Steve Vasturia (13.7 points) and Rex Plueger (4.8 points) round out the Irish’s starting five.
Notre Dame is shooting 38.5 percent from beyond the arc on the season and 45.9 percent from the field. Typically opponents see the charity stripe often against the Mountaineers and the Irish shot 79.5 percent from the line.
Offensively and defensively, Jevon Carter is the face of WVU. He averages 13 points, and 5.0 rebounds per contest.
The All-Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year is seventh in the nation and steals, averaging 2.6 steals per game.
After missing three of WVU’s final four regular season games, Ahmad (11.3 points) has recovered from a back injury. The sophomore scored 15 points in the Mountaineers’ win against Bucknell.
WVU’s bench has attributed to much of its success this season. Against Bucknell, the Mountaineers’ bench outscored their opponent’s 37-5.
Much of that can be credited to senior Tarik Phillip (9.5 points) and freshman Lamont West (5.9 points).
Phillip recorded 16 points and made crucial free throws in the closing minutes. Also, West had a big game against the Bison, tallying 15 points.
Adrian (9.9 points, 5.9 rebounds) and Elijah Macon (6.2 points, 4.1 rebounds) have been WVU’s most reliable big men. Whether they put up the points or not, both have been key components of the team’s defensive success.
Notre Dame and the Mountaineers last met in 2012 when both teams were still members of the Big East. The Irish swept the season series, winning 55-51 in Morgantown, W.Va., and 71-44 at home.
The Irish hold a 27-12 series edge.
“This is bringing back a lot of Big East memories all afternoon and last night,”Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey said. “I’m thinking about our games certainly against John Beilein, and since Bob has been there. My memory is how hard the Mountaineer crowd is on us down there – I have heard some of the most unbelievable stuff. What I’ll do is turn to my assistant and say, ‘God, that was a good one. He really ripped me on that.’”
The Irish are the only team to reach the Elite Eight in each of the last two NCAA Tournaments.
WVU is 3-0 playing in Buffalo during the NCAA Tournament. In 2010, the Mountaineers went 2-0 in Buffalo and went on to the Final Four.
Cover Photo Credit: Kelsie LeRose, BGS