Nov. 22, 2016
By John Heisler
It’s a shirts and hats night at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
That’s Notre Dame basketball code for the notion that a trophy will be on the line Tuesday night in the championship game of the Legends Classic. That comes after Notre Dame wrote a tale of two halves in dispatching unbeaten Colorado 89-83 Monday night in one semifinal to remain unbeaten itself.
That means Mike Brey’s crew takes on 4-1 Northwestern--a solid 77-58 winner over 22nd-rated Texas in the nightcap Monday in Brooklyn—in the title tussle.
Truth be told, Brey is thinking of scheduling a regular mini-series of games here in Brooklyn—that’s how comfortable the Irish seem to be playing here.
Notre Dame now has won four straight at Barclays—home of the NBA Brooklyn Nets—starting with a victory over BYU in 2012 and then, most notably, NCAA Championship triumphs over Michigan and Stephen F. Austin last March. Next up for the Irish at Barclays will be the Atlantic Coast Championship in March (and again in 2018).
So maybe it’s no accident that the Irish scorched the nets early, blowing out to a 50-35 halftime lead that featured 54 percent first-half shooting and six three-pointers (from four different players.
If Brey wanted some of that Irish karma (and he’s big on that), he found plenty Monday night at the Barclays Center:
--Former Irish All-American Kelly Tripucka sat behind the Notre Dame bench—he was honored at a first-half timeout as Notre Dame’s designated legend for the two-night event. He’ll see the Irish again in a couple of weeks when he does radio commentary when Notre Dame is back in the area to meet defending NCAA champion Villanova Dec. 10 in Newark.
--Former Irish star Pat Connaughton caught the game—he’s in town because his NBA Portland Trail Blazers play the New York Knicks Tuesday night. He had a chance to huddle with Brey and V.J. Beachem after the game.
--Notre Dame graduate Leo Ehrline, now executive vice president of the Nets, was on hand as one of the event administrators.
--Former Brey assistant Sean Kearney sat on the Colorado bench as the Buffs’ director of player development.
--Former Notre Dame athletics administrator Jim Phillips—now the Northwestern athletics director--sat behind the Wildcat bench. Phillips was the sport administrator for basketball during his tenure in South Bend.
--Even the Hanover Park High School band (from East Hanover, New Jersey) showed up in blue T-shirts with gold interlocking NDs to play the Victory March on a few occasions.
Yet, even with all that, it was a local kid who stole the show for the Irish.
While Notre Dame’s big three of Beachem (17 points, seven rebounds), Bonzie Colson (22 points, team-high 12 rebounds) and Steve Vasturia (17 points) absolutely did their fair shares, it was Bridgewater, New Jersey, product Matt Farrell who merited the headline.
Farrell, who injected himself into the Notre Dame starting lineup when the Irish played at Barclays last March on the first NCAA weekend, looked like he’d been working out here ever since.
With the Colorado defense focused on the long-range abilities of Beachem and Vasturia and the other Irish shooters, Farrell consistently beat his man one on one and blew to the hoop on strong drives that made the difference in the second half.
Farrell hit seven of his 13 shots and ended with 20 points, seven more than his previous career high and almost half as many as he scored all of last season.
The Irish built leads of 17-6 early and by as much as 48-30 late in the opening half, as Notre Dame held the Buffs to 37.1 percent shooting in the opening 20 minutes. At the break Colson and Farrell had combined to make eight of their 10 shots.
“They’ve been one and done for the most part, we’ve gotten great shots, and now we’re going to have to guard like heck to start the half,” Brey told his team at intermission. “It’s a 40-minute game, so let’s get out of the gate really good again—great energy. Let’s see if we can do a better job keeping them off the foul line (four Notre Dame starters had two fouls at the break).”
As free-wheeling as the first half had been offensively for the Irish on their way to those 50 points, the second half couldn’t have been more different. Predictably Colorado turned up the defensive pressure (the Irish shot only 10 of 33 from the field in the second half and did not make any of their five three-point attempts), and the Buffs actually made six more second-half baskets than Notre Dame.
The Irish still led 64-48 midway through the second period, but Colorado hung tough, cutting the deficit to five points at 70-65 with just under two minutes and then twice to four (81-77 and 85-81) in the last minute.
Brey’s crew salted this one away at the foul line, connecting on an amazing 27 of 29 for the game and hitting 14 in a row in the last minute and a half alone.
“That foul line, baby, that’s a weapon,” noted Irish assistant coach Ryan Ayers in the postgame Notre Dame locker room.
Notre Dame’s final field goal came at the 2:39 mark of the second half—and that drive and lay-in by Farrell made it 75-66 for the Irish.
Farrell also contributed six assists, including one that led to a highlight-reel dunk down the left baseline by Beachem (that play was Tweeted by SportsCenter and by Tuesday morning had more than 2,379 Retweets and 3,814 likes at #SCtop10).
“We talked before the game about not letting them beat us up on the boards and we outrebounded them (41-38),” Brey told his team after the contest. “We talked about keeping them off the foul line and not letting them kill us there and we got to the foul line and go 27 for 29. Big time.
“You know what was great about the game? We’re flowing and moving in the first half and we put 50 on the board. Give them credit--they guard the heck out of us the second half, switching ball screens. We had to play a kind of dirty, grinding second half, getting fouled and getting to the line. They took the three away—we didn’t make one in the send half--but we found other ways to do things.
“So this group gets to play for a trophy tomorrow night. That’s neat. All I know is we love this building. Let’s keep rolling.”
Said Colorado coach Tad Boyle, “It’s tough to come back against a team that makes free throws like that down the stretch. We did a much better job of guarding the three-point line in the second half, but they can make threes like no tomorrow.
“Farrell took us from 25 feet to the rim—he did it on multiple occasions and he did it on multiple guys. There was no ball screen involved--he just took us to the rack and dropped us off.
“The first 20 minutes they were the aggressor, and I thought we just got out-toughed much of the night.”
And if the Irish need a bit more karma Tuesday night, it may come from first-year Irish assistant coach Ryan Humphrey who knows Northwestern personnel well—having spent the previous two seasons as director of player development with the Wildcats.
He’ll try to help the Irish leave the Barclays Center with championship hats and shirts—and a trophy.