Feb. 12, 2017
By John Heisler
Notre Dame men’s basketball coach Mike Brey before Tuesday night’s game against Wake Forest scotch-taped a sheet in each player’s locker that featured a list of a warrior’s commandments.
Irish junior forward Bonzie Colson apparently memorized those rules, embraced them and has decided to put them all on display on a nightly basis.
If Notre Dame fans thought Colson deserved their applause Tuesday against the Demon Deacons when he put up a then-season-high 27 points (on 10-of-16 shooting) to go with 16 rebounds and five blocks, they had to be over the moon Saturday night.
Colson’s line read a career-high 33 points, 12-of-18-field-goal shooting, one three-pointer that shot all the air out of 14th-rated Florida State’s balloon and 13 rebounds. Fittingly, he appeared on the cover of the game program Saturday.
It was likely the best two halfs of basketball the Irish have put together this year at both ends of the floor against a quality opponent.
And if the Seminoles legitimately are a projected number-two seed (and the sixth team overall in the bracket)—as the NCAA Men’s Basketball Committee listed them earlier Saturday—where exactly does Notre Dame belong after the Irish (19-7, 8-5) thoroughly dismantled those ‘Noles 84-72 at Purcell Pavilion in a game not nearly as close as that margin suggests?
Mike Brey’s crew came into this one feeling like it owed the Seminoles something after Florida State handed the Irish their first loss after five consecutive wins to open Atlantic Coast Conference play. The ‘Noles won that one by three points in Tallahassee three and a half weeks ago and they’ve been lingering at or near the league lead ever since.
Leonard Hamilton’s crew has proven to be a high-flying offensive machine that can score with anybody in the ACC—with its last three games featuring wins by an average of 30 points. The ‘Noles are tall and rangy and they were coming off a win Wednesday over North Carolina State in which they outrebounded the Pack by 24—the seventh time this season Florida State has out-boarded a foe by 10 or more.
So Brey understandably felt like his Irish had to find a way to keep Florida State from dominating on the glass—and Notre Dame did that, holding a two-rebound edge at half and finishing with a 41-34 advantage.
He felt like his Irish needed to keep the Seminoles in front of them defensively—and they did that for the vast majority of the 40 minutes. Freshman Jonathan Isaac—a 13.1-point scorer who had 23 in the teams’ first meeting—didn’t score in the first half and finished with four points. Leading Florida State scorer Dwayne Bacon finished five points below his average.
Meanwhile, the Irish offense—like in the second half against Wake Forest—continued to purr smoothly, putting up consecutive halfs of at least 40 points.
The Irish kept up their nation-leading free-throw shooting by connecting on 19 of 21 from the line—while the visitors qualified as abysmal in that category, missing 15 attempts from the charity stripe and earning catcalls from the Notre Dame student body all night.
There was as much of a buzz in Purcell Pavilion Saturday as for any other Irish home game this season. ESPN’s Dick Vitale and former Irish great Pat Garrity were in the house, the Irish wore their gold uniforms again—and Notre Dame, in another shot at an all-small lineup, gave rookie T.J. Gibbs his first start of the season.
Colson accounted for the first Notre Dame points a minute and a half in, so consider the Seminoles warned. Matt Farrell’s three-pointer made it 7-6 for the home team, and the Irish never again trailed. Meanwhile, Florida State’s first 19 points came in the paint.
Notre Dame built a 10-point lead (27-17) on a three-point play by Steve Vasturia at 5:20. The home team led by as many as 11 (40-29), earning a standing ovation in the final minute of the first half after Colson’s offensive rebound earned him a pair of free throws.
“Great half, man, great half. We’ve got 40 on the board at halftime and I’ve been waiting for one of those halftimes where we’ve got 40,” Brey said at the intermission. “Let’s put another 50 on the board the second half like we did against Wake Forest. Our defense has been good, know who you can gap off of--and we’re getting every loose ball. They’re driving down our pike, let’s just stay and show our hands—if they make tough ones when we’re riding, that’s alright. We just do not want to foul and be ready to rebound. Twenty more now!”
Hamilton appeared to try to up the tempo after the break—but to no avail. Isaacs’s first bucket of the game to open the second half cut the margin to seven, but Colson’s 20-point second half effectively kept the visitors at bay (he hit seven of nine shots in the final 20 minutes). His three-point play less than four minutes into the half made the margin 15 points and gave him 18 for the night. Forty seconds later he produced an amazing tip-in off a Vasturia miss and that made him the 61st Irish player to reach the career 1,000-point mark.
The Irish students kept track of exactly where the Seminoles stood in the free-throw category—chanting “one for eight” and “three for 13” and reveling in every Florida State miss.
Notre Dame led by as many as 20—of course via a Colson three-pointer at 78-58 with 4:38 to go. That earned the Irish standout a “BON-zie COL-son” tribute shout-out from the students—who also offered up a mock tomahawk chop and an “OH-ver-RATE-ed” chant in the final two minutes. It was that kind of giddy night for fans of the home team. Notre Dame’s final points came on a rare dunk by Vasturia—or “Air Vasturia” as Brey renamed him.
“What a great, together, helping-each-other effort,” Brey told his charges after his regular winning postgame leaping hip bump with Matt Gregory. “We were great on the defensive end, let’s talk about that first. Great position defense and great job on the backboard. And we’re starting to roll offensively for 40 minutes, not just 25, not just 35. And it’s the right time. That gets us to eight league wins, and there’s a lot of interesting stuff that can happen.”
Colson (he was named to the John Wooden Award Late Season Top 20 Thursday), V.J. Beachem, Farrell (he had 15 points and nine assists Saturday) and Vasturia (he had 15 points and seven rebounds) have carried the offensive load for the Irish—with all four averaging between 14.0 and 16.1 points.
At least for now, the Irish are committed to a smaller lineup. And if Notre Dame can combine its normal perimeter excellence with Colson’s warrior-like interior production and at least hold its own in the rebounding column, Brey’s crew becomes a particularly intriguing matchup challenge.
“Let’s get on another run, man,” added Brey. “Let’s be greedy now. We were greedy when we got out of the gate and won five in a row (to start ACC play). We won some thrilling ones and we came right back and wanted to take somebody’s lunch money again. We need to be in that frame of mind.”
Senior associate athletics director John Heisler has been following Irish athletic fortunes since 1978. Look for his weekly Sunday Brunch offerings.