Dec. 1, 2017
By John Heisler
Through some point late in the second half--the Irish still trailed by only 10 points with 5:01 remaining Thursday night in East Lansing--Notre Dame’s men’s basketball team might have been charged with counterfeiting.
That’s how much the blueprint of unbeaten and fifth-rated Notre Dame’s game against third-ranked Michigan State appeared almost identical to what happened eight days previous against Wichita State in the title game of the Maui Invitational.
It was a matched set--everything from a forgettable, somewhat frustrating first half to a scintillating second-half comeback.
The Irish got down 16 points to the Shockers. Thursday night the shortfall was 22 points late in the first half and 20 at the break.
In Maui, the Irish slowly but surely pecked away at the Shocker advantage, not taking a lead until Martin Geben’s two free throws with two seconds to go.
This time, the Irish wiped out half of that 20-point halftime deficit before the first media timeout of the second half and made it a seven-point game (53-46) on a Matt Farrell jumper with 13:09 to go.
But Mike Brey’s club never got closer. The Spartans, with their depth and wingspan, always seemed to come up with a bucket to answer any Notre Dame surge. The margin remained nine points at 10:42 and 10 at 5:01 until the home team ran off 10 straight points.
That ended the drama in Michigan State’s 81-63 victory on the final night of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge in Notre Dame’s first visit to East Lansing in 44 seasons.
“We’ve got each other’s back out there tonight,” said Brey to his team before the action began.
“Let’s make them play half-court offense against our defense. Don’t let them get out in transition. We’ve got to sprint back, challenge shots and defend.
“Let’s get some misses early, get out and go and make them change ends. I want us to find our flow quicker than we did in the Wichita State game. We’ve got to move and screen—let’s get into our flow on the road right here.”
That proved to be a major challenge in a hyped atmosphere for the home team.
Before they knew it the Irish were down 9-2, 14-5 (after three straight Michigan State buckets) and then 24-8 just seven and a half minutes into the fray.
Nothing came easily on the offensive end for the Irish, and the Spartans seemed to be playing downhill most of the early going. Michigan State assigned 6-11 freshman Jaren Jackson to guard Bonzie Colson and that made it challenging for Colson operating around the lane.
At the midpoint of the first half, the Irish had missed seven of their last eight shots, Michigan State had made five in a row and the Spartans held a 13-1 edge on the boards. The home squad led 31-11 10 minutes into the game.
Colson finally scored for the first time with 7:51 remaining to cut the lead to 33-17, but he finished with only six first-half points, while Farrell was scoreless (with four assists).
T.J. Gibbs had 11 points at the break, while 10 different Michigan State players had rebounds.
“We got stops three of the last four possessions,” noted Brey to his team at intermission. “Lot of basketball left. But here’s the thing. We can’t sit there and play fast and try and cut this thing down (Michigan State led 46-26 at the break). We want to come in at that first timeout and say we got it to 14. And then at the 12-minute timeout, get it to nine. Chipping away. I have the same feeling I had in Maui.”
And darned if Brey didn’t look like a prophet. The only things missing were the grass skirts.
Rex Pflueger knocked down a three less than a minute into the second half, and Farrell finally scored for the first time on a three at the 16:47 mark (to make it 48-38).
The Irish ran off nine straight points in a 1:44 span and started the half on a 14-2 run. The first five fouls of the second half went against the Spartans.
The Maui karma seemed to be returning.
Notre Dame hit three straight shots and six of eight on its way to that 53-46 Spartan lead with 13:09 to go.
As Spartan coach Tom Izzo noted later, referring to the Irish run, “Our youth showed on our part and their experience showed on their part.”
But Michigan State had answers. Nick Ward and Joshua Langford responded with consecutive baskets, yet the Irish were in it after knocking down eight of their first dozen shots after halftime.
The Irish were still in range at 61-51, but a Colson jumper in the lane came up short, a Gibbs drive ended off the mark and the home team did just enough to keep Notre Dame at bay. The Irish missed seven straight shots until a Colson three-pointer kept it at 69-59 with 5:01 remaining. Then Michigan State ran off 10 straight points to end it.
The Spartans simply had too many big bodies to run at Brey’s crew.
“On to the next one. That was a great run in the second half,” Brey said to his team. “We’ll go back and look and see what happened when we got it down to eight and seven. We’re going to be in that situation again--how do we get better at that? What you guys talked about at halftime you delivered. Don’t change a thing about your preparation. They’re just a really good team.
“Who are we in bounce-back mode? We took a good punch from a good team, and now it’ll be good to play at home again. We haven’t been at home for a while. It’s a marathon.”
Both teams hit identical 13-for-25 field-goal numbers in the second half, but the Irish ended up on the short end of an overall 42-21 rebounding differential.
Brey noted that his worst fear was Michigan State getting off to a hot start, and that’s what happened. He called the Spartans “the best rebounding team in the country.”
Added Brey, “We defended and executed to start the second half but they made a big shot every time we threatened. But I love our fight, I love our group. There was no panic at halftime. We just couldn’t get over the hump. Playing them is a great measuring stick for where you are.
“We could not get Bonzie and Matt going early and those are our guys. Give Michigan State credit—they took them away the first 15 minutes.”
And Izzo admitted his team’s first-half defense was “the best it’s been.”
The Irish play six more nonleague December games before Atlantic Coast Conference play begins at home Dec. 30 versus Georgia Tech.
Plenty of time to tweak the blueprint.