Mazurek: Despite tough season, Irish should hold their heads high
Marek Mazurek | Tuesday, March 20, 2018
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story was published online March 17.
It wasn’t supposed to end this way for Notre Dame.
Not in the NIT.
Not with senior forward Bonzie Colson on the bench with yet another injury to his left foot.
And it certainly wasn’t supposed to end on St. Patrick’s Day at Purcell Pavilion with the the Irish in their green uniforms.
But Penn State made nine 3s. Notre Dame made four. And the Nittany Lions bumped the Irish from the NIT in the second round in front of a sizeable crowd at Purcell Pavilion.
Or maybe it was exactly how Notre Dame’s season was supposed to end.
The Irish fought just as hard as they have all season, but they didn’t have enough.
They didn’t have enough to squeak out a win at home against North Carolina or Louisville in January.
They didn’t have enough to stop their seven-game slide in the middle of conference play.
They didn’t have enough to take win their final ACC tournament game against Duke and seal themselves a spot in the NCAA tournament.
Failing that, they didn’t have enough help from the other bubble teams to slip into the tournament field.
In Saturday’s game against Penn State, the Irish didn’t get enough calls, enough misses on defense or enough of their own 3-pointers to fall.
But they fought. As hard as they have all year.
“This senior class and this team will have a special spot in my heart, even though we didn’t go the NCAA tournament, we didn’t win the NIT [and] we didn’t get to the ACC championship game,” Irish head coach Mike Brey said. “I told them in [the locker room] — I shook every one of their hands, I made them stand up and look me in the eye and said, ‘You know what? I feel like I was dealing with men.’”
And the Irish played like men, all of Saturday and all season.
Junior guard Rex Pflueger, who was dealing with a sore back throughout the year, managed to fight for five rebounds and four assists.
Sophomore guard T.J. Gibbs, who played more minutes than almost anyone in the country, found a way to galvanize a late comeback effort with a string of 3-point shots before he fouled out with 17 points.
Graduate student Austin Torres, who did what was asked of him for his five years with the program, chipped in six points in eight minutes on three dunks.
Matt Farrell, though he had just nine points against the Nittany Lions, battled through injuries all year to lead the Irish back into the bubble conversation with Colson on the bench.
Martinas Geben, who is a shoo-in for the team’s Most Improved Player award, scored 10 points with seven rebounds, giving Brey solid minutes and taking on an increased leadership role with the team.
Even Colson, who sat out a whole quarter, came up just one rebound shy of a double-double. Though with 16 points and nine boards, Colson picked up his 900th career rebound and subbed himself in for the last 35 seconds of the game, getting one more standing ovation from the crowd at Purcell Pavilion that has seen him play an integral part of two consecutive Elite Eight runs and three consecutive NCAA tournament appearances.
But the winningest senior class in Notre Dame history saw its four years (or five years in Torres’ case) end with an a whimper rather than a bang. A tough end to a tough season. An end to an era, perhaps.
When Notre Dame regroups for next season in July, it will do so without Colson, Farrell, Torres and Geben. There will be only two seniors on the roster and five incoming freshmen for Brey and his coaching staff to break in.
But for the time being, the Irish should follow the lead of Colson, pointing at the crowd to say “thank you” as he walked off the floor for the last time, and holding their heads high.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.