Dec. 10, 2017
By John Heisler
It hardly qualified as the garden variety road game for Notre Dame Saturday night in Newark, Delaware.
In Irish coach Mike Brey’s first return to the University of Delaware where he spent his first five seasons as a head coach (1995-96 to 1999-2000), circumstances dictated this would be much more than a basketball game.
In fact, with former Irish players Ryan Humphrey, Ryan Ayers, Harold Swanagan and Eric Atkins on the Notre Dame bench, Blue Hen head coach Martin Ingelsby (a 13-year staff member under Brey, Mike’s point guard in his first season in South Bend and now in his second year as Delaware head man) and assistant Torrian Jones (both former Irish players) on the Delaware bench—plus last year’s Irish captain Steve Vasturia watching from the stands and Zach Hillesland doing color for the Notre Dame radio network—Brey very well could have conducted an alumni scrimmage.
There were the parents of Irish junior Rex Pflueger, rooting for their son in his green Irish uniform but just a wee bit conflicted considering Ingelsby came to maybe 20 of Rex’s games to recruit Pflueger during his high school days.
It’s safe to say this was maybe as emotional, interesting and complicated as a postgame handshake line gets.
Brey couldn’t go anywhere without a camera in the vicinity and a greeting from an old friend.
He personally set a single-game road record for acquaintances greeted, handshakes and hugs, tickets autographed, photos posed and memories revisited.
It was impossible for Brey not to face the rafters and see those two America East title banners and NCAA Championships appearances and not think at least for a moment that, in some form, this was where it all again.
But, nostalgia aside, both the teams needed a victory. The Irish came in having dropped two of their last three and Ingelsby’s Blue Hens had lost three straight.
So, with T.J. Gibbs getting 14 of his 21 points in the first half and Matt Farrell accounting for 14 of his 24 in the second half, the Irish took care of business. The Blue Hens hung with the visitors early, but Notre Dame was coldly efficient in hitting 20 of 32 second-half shots (eight of 12 three-pointers) while committing only a single turnover in those final 20 minutes.
All that translated to a 92-68 victory for the Irish (8-2) heading into final exams this next week.
Brey preached patience, a one-and-done approach on defense--and a pound-the-glass mentality in general.
“We’ve got to get back to rebounding the ball,” he told his team before the action began. “Let’s get our block-outs handled and then get out and go. Back on the backboards, back on the backboards.”
Delaware may have been winless in its history against ranked opponents (0-32), including 17 of those against top-10 foes—with Notre Dame the fourth top-10 team to play in Newark. But once the home team and its fans got past a fitting pregame introduction of Brey—who in many ways created some of the best of Blue Hen glory days--Delaware made it tough early on.
The game was tied after the first two media timeouts, and the Irish turned it over four times in the opening seven minutes. The Blue Hens’ largest lead came at 14-11 with 11:20 to go after a 6-0 Delaware run. Ingelsby‘s club last led 19-17 before Gibbs turned it around with a traditional three-point play after a layup followed by a three-point field goal—with all that prompting Ingelsby to call time.
Delaware missed eight of 10 shots over one stretch, went 3:48 without a field goal and saw Notre Dame hit four straight shots to end the half with an 11-point cushion (38-27).
“Way to finish,” a hoarse Brey told his team at the break. “Really good stuff out of the double team. Let’s keep controlling the board and get out there. But if we don’t have it in transition, don’t force it, make them guard us a little. We’re gonna get you some touches at the elbow. We’ve done a good job defensively making them take tough shots.”
There were six ties and seven lead changes in the opening half, but the Irish closed on a 27-13 run. Delaware did not score in the second half until nearly four minutes in and by then Notre Dame had pushed the advantage to 16 points.
Ingelsby had to call another timeout after Pflueger hit two straight buckets (the second a three) as Notre Dame started the half knocking down seven of its first nine attempts (all four from three-point areas) for a 55-34 lead. Delaware came back to connect on seven straight shots to cut the deficit to 78-62, but the Irish put in four of their next five to pull away.
Brey’s crew simply had too much firepower. It had to be strange for Ingelsby to watch his own team fall to a bunch of players--most of whom he helped recruit and teach.
“I’ve never been so proud of a team after losing by 24 points,” said Ingelsby. “I think our team really believed and competed. We were going for it. I love our group and I think we’re getting better. We’re going to get over the hump. We have a young, talented freshman class that really believes. We went toe to toe with Notre Dame for about 16 minutes in the first half, before the last four minutes got away from us a bit. They hit a couple of three-pointers and it went from a two-possession game to 11 points, which was too big a hole for us to dig out of.
“What an unbelievable atmosphere tonight was. It was great to see the building sold out (for the first time since 2003). It was electric in there. We’re still learning, but our group is fearless and battled back.”
Meanwhile, Brey kidded that in the early going he was second-guessing his decision to come to Newark:
“I was thinking, ‘This is the worst idea I ever had. They set me up.’
“But we shot it well. We played fast, pushed it on purpose.”
Brey, known at times in South Bend for having a short bench with the Irish, loved the fact Ingelsby played two of his starters for 40 minutes.
“I’m not sure I want to play ‘em when they’re older.”
Brey missed out only on a trip to local hangout Klondike Kate’s (a stone’s throw from the Carpenter Center) for a crab cake, though he kiddingly suggested some of his staff members may have missed curfew Friday night while doing that.
Added Notre Dame’s coach, “It was all very touching, so emotional for me. A lot of really good stuff happened here. This place set me up for the rest of my career.”
Said Brey of his former point guard Ingelsby, “He’s a confidence-giving guy. I think he’s on the right track with good young players.”
Both Brey and Ingelsby are hoping the Newark experience works out just as well for the latest Blue Hen head coach as it did for Brey.