Irish top Mastodons, off to best start under Mike Brey
Marek Mazurek | Wednesday, December 7, 2016
No. 23 Notre Dame extended its season-opening win streak to nine games Tuesday night after dispatching Fort Wayne, 87-72, at Purcell Pavilion.
Irish head coach Mike Brey has led two consecutive Irish squads to the Elite Eight, but this is the best start the Irish (9-0) have had during his 17-year tenure.
Before the game, Brey called the Mastodons (7-3) “maybe the best team” the Irish have faced so far this year. Fort Wayne defeated then-No. 3 Indiana in overtime on Nov. 22 and was enjoying a six-game winning streak before taking on the Irish. However, the Mastodons only looked capable of knocking off the Irish at the end of Tuesday night’s contest: Notre Dame led Fort Wayne by as much 27 points in the second half, but the Mastodons clawed their way back to face just a nine-point deficit with three minutes remaining in the game.
The Irish captured the momentum from the very beginning of the game, as they jumped out to a 7-2 lead in the game’s first five minutes. Junior forward Bonzie Colson opened the scoring with a 3-pointer and grabbed three rebounds on the defensive glass. Missed 3’s from senior captains forward V.J. Beachem and guard Steve Vasturia prevented the Irish from jumping out to an even larger advantage.
“That’s something that Coach Brey talks about: good starts,” Colson said. “It starts with me, Steve, V.J., [junior guard] Matt [Farrell] and the whole starting five. [We] make sure we get stops on defense, and running that really gets us in an offensive rhythm.”
However, the Mastodons helped the Irish out, shooting just 25 percent in the game’s opening eight minutes. The slow start from Fort Wayne, coupled with a 3-point basket from sophomore guard Rex Pflueger and 11 points from Colson, gave the Irish a 24-12 cushion after ten minutes of basketball.
Notre Dame closed out the first half on slam dunk from freshman forward John Mooney, which allowed them to take a 41-23 lead into the locker room. Colson had 13 points and nine rebounds in the half alone and would easily pick up his sixth consecutive double-double in the next half. As a team, Notre Dame made 7-of-22 3-point shots in the period, while Fort Wayne shot just 1-of-10 from beyond the arc and 9-of-28 from the field overall. The Irish have yet to trail going into halftime this year.
“I really liked the way we defended in the first half to not give them any confidence that they could get one in here tonight.” Brey said. “I thought our defense was fabulous against gifted offensive guys, especially on the perimeter.”
Notre Dame’s high-water mark was a 27-point lead on the heels of a Farrell layup with 13 minutes left to play. The Mastodons cut into the lead a little bit around the midway mark of the half, but two consecutive 3-pointers from Pflueger and two fast-break layups saw the Irish up 68-48 with 10 minutes remaining.
Mastodons senior guard Mo Evans was the reason Fort Wayne kept the game close. Evans had only four points in the first half, but was not to be denied in the second, scoring 21 points after the break. The Mastodons picked up their shooting in the second period as well, managing a 54-percent mark from behind the arc. Pflueger said he felt the Irish got a little complacent in the second half to allow Fort Wayne back in.
“They’re a great offensive team,” Pflueger said. “I think it was just our defense fell apart. We got a little bit lackadaisical, and [Evans] is a great player. And he’s crafty and quick, and he made a few jump shots.”
Fort Wayne did manage to reduce the Irish lead to 13 points with five minutes remaining and then to 11 at the 3:37 mark. After a rare missed free throw from Beachem and a floater from Mastodons sophomore guard Charles Ruise Jr., Fort Wayne cut the lead to just nine. The Irish players huddled up at the ensuing timeout, and Brey said he knew his team would be fine based on the confidence he saw in the conference.
“There’s no panic. There’s discussion,” Brey said. “The tone is, ‘We’re fine. We’re going to be fine.’ I certainly reiterated that. I’m not doing backflips. ‘Let’s try to do this a little better. Let’s change a matchup, let’s be smart offensively.’ It’s mature.”
However, the Mastodons would not upset the Irish as they upset the Hoosiers a few weeks ago. Farrell hit two free throws to put the Irish back up 11. Then Mastodons head coach Jon Coffman was called for a technical and Farrell drained two more free throws to effectively seal the game for Notre Dame.
Colson finished the night with 17 points and 14 rebounds, while Beachem and Vasturia chipped in 14 and 21 points, respectively. Vasturia has reached double-figure points in nine of his last 10 games.
After two straight wins by at least 15 points, No. 23 Notre Dame’s next matchup will be a bit more challenging. On Saturday, Notre Dame heads to Newark, New Jersey, to take on the defending champs, No. 1 Villanova. Tipoff is set for noon at the Prudential Center.