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Irish can’t overcome first half deficit in Big Ten/ACC Challenge loss

| Friday, December 1, 2017

A slow start for the No. 5 Irish helped No. 2 Michigan State defeat Notre Dame 81-63 for the program’s first loss of the season on Thursday night in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.

“My worst fear was [the Spartans] getting off to great starts because when they do that in this buildin, it’s a heck of an uphill climb,” Irish head coach Mike Brey said after the game. “They really got off to a great start.”

Zach Yim | The Observer
Senior point guard Matt Farrell dribbles past a Chicago State defender during Notre Dame’s 105-66 win on Nov. 16 at Purcell Pavilion.

Aside from a back-and-forth 14-8 in the opening minutes of the game, the Irish (6-1) were unsettled on both offense and defense, and the Spartans (6-1) capitalize by going on a 10-0 run, led by sophomore Joshua Langford. The five-minute scoring drought for the Irish, aided by two unforced turnovers, finally ended when sophomore guard T.J. Gibbs drained a 3-pointer to cut the lead to 24-11.

Midway through the first half, Brey made a defensive adjustment to a matchup 2-3 zone that held the Spartans to 30 percent shooting from behind the arc, but Notre Dame couldn’t capitalize on the offensive end of the floor. Brey said the team’s offensive struggles stemmed from a failure to get seniors Matt Farrell and Bonzie Colson involved early on in the game.

“We couldn’t get Farrell and Colson going early. Those are our guys, if they don’t get it going early the rest of the group gets a little worried and concerned,” Brey said.

At the half, the Irish found themselves trailing 46-26, the largest halftime deficit for Notre Dame since 2015. But much like they did in their last game against Wichita State, the Irish started the second half strong.

Notre Dame totaled four defensive stops to start the second half, and built off their defensive momentum on the offensive end and jumped out on a 12-2 run in the opening 3:35 of the second frame. Senior point guard Matt Farrell came alive in the second half including a step back 3-pointer in the face of sophomore Spartan guard Cassius Winston to cut the lead to 48-38 with 16:35 minutes remaining in the game and forced a Spartan timeout.

“I loved our fight [in the second half] … It’s grueling when you have to dig out of a hole, and we have to be better in first halves so that we’re not digging out of a hole. Second half we knew we had a run in us,” Brey said.

The Irish kept up the heat after the break, as a turnaround jumper from Colson made the score 48-40 after a Rex Pflueger steal. But Michigan State finally responded with a layup from sophomore Miles Bridges. Notre Dame came within seven after a Farrell jumper cut the Spartan lead to 53-46 with 13:07 left, but Michigan State continued to answer everything the Irish threw at them.

“I really give our guys credit. We defended and executed to start the second half. We took a couple charges, and you’re feeling [like] you have a shot at this thing,” said Brey, when asked about the Irish’s second half performance.

The Spartans would go on another 10-0 run as the half came to a close, securing a 20-point lead with two minutes remaining in the game after back-to-back 3’s from Winston. Brey praised the Spartans for their ability to make big shots down the stretch and playing strong defense.

“They’re really good. They’re a heck of a team,” he said. “They’re as good as anybody as anybody in the country. Hats off to them because they were really ready to play. Anytime we made a little a run in that second half, somebody made a big shot.”

Colson lead the way for the Irish with 17 points, six rebounds and four blocks, while Pflueger had a career-high 15 points, three assists and two steals. Farrell finished with 10 points — that all came in the second half — as well as seven assists.

Facing Michigan State ended a four-game road spree for the Irish, as Mike Brey and the Irish return home this weekend. The Irish will look to rebound when they face the St. Francis Brooklyn Terriers this Sunday 2 p.m. at Purcell Pavilion.

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