Feb. 7, 2017
By John Heisler
There’s hardly any sort of offensive frustration that can’t be made to disappear by a 52-point second half that includes nine three-point baskets, sizzling 55.6 percent field-goal shooting and only two turnovers.
That’s Mike Brey’s story, and he’s sticking to it.
That’s what it took for Brey’s Notre Dame men’s basketball team to end a tailspin that had chalked up five Irish losses in the last six games. It came in an 88-81 victory Tuesday night at Purcell Pavilion against a Wake Forest team that had won four of its last six.
Bonzie Colson seemingly willed his team to victory with a season-high 27 points (10 of 16 from the floor) and 16 rebounds (only against Iowa did he have more with 17 that December night).
Brey did not mince words at halftime when his team trailed by five points despite seeing the Demon Deacons miss eight of their first nine shots and then go on a 9-0 run over a 2:01 span to take an 18-14 advantage. The Irish had an 8-0 run of their own to lead 27-23, only to see Wake Forest go on its own 8-0 run to go on top 31-27. Both teams connected on their final three shots of the first 20 minutes.
“Just play, baby,” Brey told his charges at halftime. “It’s ugly. It’s ugly and we’re not really churning on the offensive end, so just keep battling. It’s one of those battles where it’s just ugly and we’ve got to keep guarding them. We’ve got to be better defensively and more alert in the second half to win the game. Our offense will kick in, but we have to talk and we have to be smart about it.”
If Notre Dame’s head coach thought the first half was ugly, there’s no telling how he might have described the start of the second period when the two teams combined to miss their first 11 shots.
Wake Forest built its largest lead at 45-36, Brey shed his sports coat, Steve Vasturia and V.J. Beachem knocked down threes within 19 seconds of each other, Brey began exhorting the fans—and the rest of the evening proved a treat for Irish fans.
The Irish scored seven straight (five by Colson) to come from behind for a 58-54 advantage. From a tie at 60 at the 9:11 mark, Beachem hit another three, Colson notched a lay-in and the Irish never trailed again.
That Irish defense Brey talked about at halftime limited the visitors to 37.8 percent shooting after intermission. Meanwhile, Colson had 16 second-half points—and in the three-pointer column in the second half Beachem was three of six (he finished with 19 points), Matt Farrell two of three (he had 16), Colson two of two and Vasturia two of two (he had 17).
Notre Dame missed only a dozen shots in the second half, while connecting on 13 of 17 free throws during that timeframe.
The Irish returned to their gold uniforms to change the karma a bit, they gave sophomore Rex Pflueger his first start of the season in Notre Dame’s ongoing attempt at a smaller lineup--and Irish football coach Brian Kelly and his new defensive coordinator Steve Elko (who came from Wake Forest) viewed from opposite the Notre Dame bench. They watched the Irish (18-7 overall, 7-5 in the Atlantic Coast Conference) connect on seven of their final nine shots to close out the victory.
“We’ve got some warriors,” Brey told his team once it was over. “We got 88 up there and we’re back to flowing and scoring. Our two old men made some big shots tonight. Great effort—good way to get on track a little bit. It’s a battle won.”
With only a half-dozen regular-season games remaining, the Irish hope to keep those late offensive numbers coming (after averaging only 66 points per game in their last four outings, all defeats). Next up is 14 th-rated Florida State, a team that already owns a win over the Notre Dame this year.
And it just may take Colson and his mates playing like warriors all over again.
Senior associate athletics director John Heisler has been writing about Notre Dame athletics since he joined the athletics communication team in 1978.