Colson, Farrell lead Irish to finals of ACC tournament
Marek Mazurek | Friday, May 19, 2017
Notre Dame gets no respect.
If you regularly follow Notre Dame basketball, that’s a self-evident fact, and this year was no different. The media picked the Irish to finish sixth in the ACC despite coming off back-to-back Elite Eight appearances — the only team in the country able to say that.
But if you follow Notre Dame, you also know that the Irish have made it a habit to shatter expectations in recent years under Mike Brey.
Notre Dame (26-10, 12-6 ACC) fell short of its third consecutive Elite Eight berth in the 2016-2017 season, but the Irish proved they can be a perennial contender, finishing third in the ACC during the regular season and making a run to the finals of the ACC tournament.
“It’s a chance to hang a banner,” Brey said of the ACC tournament final loss to Duke on March 13. “One of the neat things we were able to talk about after the Florida State game was, ‘Fellas, we could have another banner hanging up and cutting nets down. You’re playing for a championship.’ … The program has gotten to the semifinals, we’re used to getting close, and now we’ve played in two out of three championship games. That’s something they go for.”
Notre Dame started the year by cruising through its nonconference slate, starting 9-0 and winning the Legends Classic in Brooklyn, New York, over Power-5 opponents Colorado and Northwestern.
The trip to Brooklyn also marked the emergence of junior guard Matt Farrell. Brey inserted Farrell into the starting lineup for the 2016 NCAA tournament and the then-sophomore was a steady presence for the Irish. But at the Barclays Center, Farrell took his game up a level, scoring 38 points over the two games.
“It’s not like we’re shocked,” Brey said Nov. 28 of Farrell’s performance following the Legends Classic. “I think his teammates and his coaches, we’ve seen this confidence growing since the run he helped us make in March. He had the team in the summer, it was his group to run and I love his aggressiveness. I think he’s kind of finding a niche for us.”
The Irish ran into trouble near the end of nonconference play when they dropped two straight contests to then-No. 1 Villanova and then-No. 15 Purdue in mid-December, despite holding halftime leads in both games.
Brey was brutally honest with his team after the two defeats, telling the squad it had work to do if it wanted to be great.
“We’re not in the league of the two high-level teams we played. I told them that,” Brey said Dec. 17. “We’ve got a nice team. I love our team. We’re not in their league right now. We’ve got some work to do before New Year’s Eve.”
Hours before fireworks went off to celebrate the new year, Notre Dame started ACC play with some excitement of its own. On the road in Pittsburgh, the Irish escaped by the skin of their teeth with a win thanks to senior captain Steve Vasturia’s game-winning 3-point shot with 2.5 seconds left in overtime. Vasturia scored eight of Notre Dame’s 10 overtime points.
Four days later, the Irish sent another message, taking down then-No. 9 Louisville at Purcell Pavilion 77-70. Vasturia again proved his worth with a career-high 24 points and a make on a late runner that put the game away for Notre Dame.
“When we went to Brooklyn to play in the Legends [Classic], I talked about, ‘a week to make a move.’ And we did,” Brey said Jan. 6 of Notre Dame’s start to the ACC schedule. “We talked about this week as a week to make a move. We get the third one [against Clemson on Saturday], and we’ve made a heck of a move in early January.”
That move would continue, as the Irish beat the Hurricanes in Miami and Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, off of a diving steal and assist from Farrell in the game’s final minute.
The Irish sat at 16-2, with a perfect 5-0 ACC record in mid-January, but ran into a rough patch soon after.
From Jan. 18 to Feb. 5, the Irish lost five of six games, including a three-point defeat to then-No. 10 Florida State (26-9, 12-6 ACC), a loss at the buzzer to Georgia Tech and home losses to Virginia and Duke.
During that stretch, Brey changed up his starting lineup, inserting sophomore guard Rex Pflueger in place of junior forward Martinas Geben, thus adapting Mike Brey’s small-ball strategy.
“I’m proud of our group. We hung in there and gave ourselves a chance,” Brey said Feb. 6 after Notre Dame’s 83-76 loss to North Carolina. “They’re really good; we knew we were gonna have to absorb some pounding in the paint ’cause we played small. We did that, and it helped us get back into the thing. We just couldn’t get over the hump.”
The Irish figured out their issues in their next homestand and came back to win six in a row, with revenge victories over the Seminoles and Yellow Jackets (21-16, 8-10 ACC).
During this stretch, junior forward and captain Bonzie Colson solidified his spot as one of the ACC’s top players. Colson had a 27-point, 16-rebound performance against Wake Forest on Feb. 7, and then followed it up with a career-high 33-point game versus the Seminoles four days later.
“That was one of the great performances in our program’s history,” Brey said after Colson’s record setting performance against the Seminoles. “Just the adjustments we’ve made playing small and having him out on the perimeter touching it has really helped him. He’s just in an unbelievable groove right now. I turned to [associate head coach Rod] Balanis and said, ‘Do you think he can go for 40 tonight?’ I felt that good about him.”
Colson earned a spot on the first-team all-ACC team as the league’s leading rebounder and only player to average a double-double throughout conference play in the league’s history. Colson was the first Irish player to earn first-team all-ACC honors since Jerian Grant in 2015 and finished third in voting for ACC Player of the Year.
Vasturia, Farrell and senior forward V.J. Beachem joined Colson with all-ACC honors, as the trio earned ACC honorable mentions.
Brey said he thinks his team’s senior captains, Vasturia and Beachem, are two of the best in Notre Dame’s history. Vasturia and Beachem will graduate from Notre Dame tied for the most wins of any class of Irish players with 97, including seven NCAA tournament victories.
“Steve and V.J. are two of the greatest winners in the history of this basketball program. Given what they’ve been part of, total wins and especially what they’ve done in the NCAA tournament,” Brey said before Notre Dame’s Senior Night on March 1. “It’ll be a special night for those guys, and it’ll be hard for me to watch them go out one last time.”
The Irish finished their ACC regular season with a loss to Louisville (25-9, 12-6 ACC), but secured the No. 3 seed in the ACC tournament.
For the tournament, the Irish traveled back to the familiar setting of Brooklyn. With the double-bye earned by their third-place finish, the Irish took on the Cavaliers (23-11, 11-7 ACC) in the quarterfinals. Behind 21 points from Colson, Notre Dame defeated Virginia for the first time since joining the ACC, 71-58.
After a dominant victory over Florida State, Notre Dame’s run came to an end in the tournament’s final game against Duke (28-9, 11-7 ACC). Colson led the team with 29 points, but the Irish couldn’t find enough on the defensive end to stop Blue Devils freshman Jayson Tatum, as Duke won 75-69.
Pflueger said the ACC tournament gave the team the confidence it could play against anyone in the country.
“The positives are that we can play with anybody,” Pflueger said March 13. “A lot of people are saying Duke’s the best team in the country. They’re a great team, I’m not going to lie, but I think we’re just as good as them. We can play with any team — I think we proved it at that tournament, and it gives us confidence going into [the NCAA tournament].”
Notre Dame was awarded a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament and shipped off to Buffalo, New York, for first-round action.
The Irish almost saw their time in the Big Dance cut short in the first game of the tournament. No. 12 seed Princeton gave the Irish a scare, taking the first-round game all the way down to the final shot. But Tigers sophomore and Mishawaka native Devin Cannady missed a long 3-pointer for Princeton, and Notre Dame lived to play another day.
“It was really ugly, but we won,” Colson said after the game. “The object of the game is to win, and we did that. We got to advance and play again.”
Notre Dame’s luck ran out two days later when the Irish ran into No. 4 seed West Virginia. The Mountaineers (28-9, 12-6 Big 12) and their famous full-court press gave the Irish problems in the game’s first minutes. West Virginia took a 10-0 lead just four minutes into the game and never looked back.
Brey rode Colson in the second half, even after the junior picked up his fourth personal foul. Colson shot 10-of-15 from the field, including 4-of-5 from 3-point range, to lead the team with 27 points. Unfortunately for Notre Dame, it wasn’t enough as the Irish fell 83-71.
“That’s the ‘Coaching 101’ textbook that doesn’t mean a damn thing,” Brey said March 18 about Colson’s performance and keeping him in with four fouls. “If I take him out, we lose by 20. He’s smart enough, he’s a veteran — he’s got to play and he’s gonna be smart defensively, which he was, but he’s scoring for us.”
With forward Austin Torres electing to stay in South Bend for his fifth year of eligibility, Notre Dame’s only departing players are Vasturia and Beachem.
“It’s tough. Two really good players and two really good guys; I’m just going to miss them off the court, you know,” Farrell said March 18. “But they’ve got something to celebrate. Two great careers here — I’m trying to remember all the fun times we had — really good players and even better guys off the court.”