Irish surge past Yellow Jackets in ACC opener
Joe Everett | Saturday, December 30, 2017
As it has been for much of the season, Saturday’s ACC opener was a tale of two halves for Notre Dame.
Heading into the locker room down 28-23 after watching its offense stagnate for much of the first 20 minutes, Notre Dame (11-3, 1-0 ACC) came out and played like a new team in the second half, overwhelming Georgia Tech to win 68-59.
“A grinding ACC game, and I certainly expected a hard game,” Brey said. “I thought our defense helped us escape with a win today; we changed defenses and did a pretty good job. Their zone was really hard to deal with, especially with shot-blockers back there, and it took us a half to really figure it out. I thought in the second half we got into a better rhythm, our passing took over … it’s going to be a good New Year’s Eve, let me put it that way, because we’re 1-0 in league play and I appreciate every league win we can get.”
A difficult, defensive first half saw both teams shoot under 40 percent from the floor, with the Irish only going 9-of-27. Eight points from senior forward Bonzie Colson and a couple of threes from senior guard Matt Farrell gave the Irish some life, but the offense was plagued by seven first-half turnovers to the Yellow Jackets (6-7, 0-1) coupled with poor shooting. Despite their poor performance early on, Brey said the players stayed calm and collected in the locker room thanks to some senior leadership.
“Bonzie and Matt were fabulous … They were really good in those situations, Bonzie especially. [He was saying] 20 more minutes, we’ll figure it out, and boy, did we start the second half in a great rhythm offensively, and then we really defended early, so I’m really proud of our group,” Brey said. “We had game pressure on us, [senior forward Martinas Geben] isn’t very good in the first half, he bounces back and plays great. It’s great to be 1-0, and [Georgia Tech] is hard to deal with. You’re dealing with that zone where they’ve got some speed up front, but if you beat it, and we were beating it, then you’ve got the shot-blocker back there, it’s tricky — it took us a while to adjust to that.”
The Irish adjusted, and locked in on both ends of the court to start the second half. Sophomore guard T.J. Gibbs hit a 3-pointer on the opening possession, Colson began to go to work in the post, and junior guard Rex Pflueger found sophomore forward John Mooney on an alley-oop to increasingly exhilarate the Purcell Pavilion crowd. All in all, the Irish outscored the Yellow Jackets 19-6 to seize a 42-34 lead with just under 12 minutes to play.
Though Georgia Tech would cut the lead to 44-40, a three from Pflueger and a Geben dunk helped propel the Irish on a 7-0 run to a 51-40 lead. From there, the Notre Dame lead never dipped below eight, as the Irish continued to execute on both ends of the court. Colson finished with 22 points and 17 rebounds, and his determination helped Notre Dame win the battle on the boards, 45-34.
“I thought zone helped us — it kept us around the bucket and it has helped us rebound better, and I thought [Geben] and [Colson] made a concerted effort to really defensive rebound for us,” Brey said. “Sometimes we play the first half to get to the second half. I’d love for us to be in a better rhythm, but we put up 45 in the second half — we’ve put up 50 before — and that’s kind of what we’ve done. I’ll take it. I’ll keep trying to help us in the first half, but I don’t want to screw up the second half.”
Even if it wasn’t perfect, Saturday’s win still served as Brey’s 393rd win at Notre Dame, tying him with former head coach Digger Phelps as the winningest coach in program history. Brey commented on what the record means to him, and what it means for the team moving forward.
“That’s amazing. I’m honored to be here that long,” Brey said. “You heard me say the other day that when I got the job in 2000 I hoped I was good enough to not get fired, so to be able to coach at this very special place for 18 years has been awesome. I would really like to get this over with sooner than later so we can concentrate on the ACC race, but its been an honor to here that long and have the support that I’ve had.”
The Irish hope to put the “record-talk” to bed as quickly as possible by defeating North Carolina State, as the Wolfpack Wolfpack (10-4, 0-1 ACC) head to South Bend on Wednesday night. Brey hopes the Irish come to play with a short memory so they can get another conference win.
“I know about the record, but the record I like is 2-0 in league play,” Brey said. “To get to 2-0 in league play before you go on the road would be huge. We will turn the page quickly. Good win? Flip the page. Take a gut-punch? Flip it, here comes another one. We’ve been good at that … so I’m hoping we can do that again.”
The Irish and the Wolfpack will tip-off at 9 p.m. at Purcell Pavilion on Wednesday.