INDIANAPOLIS – Mike Brey ducked off the court at Bankers Life Fieldhouse with his head down. No point in looking around at the delirious Indiana crowd. No point in looking for an immediate explanation for how the Irish blew a 16-point lead either, falling 80-73 to a Hoosiers team that played the game’s final minutes like a brand name program.
“Tough one for us to swallow,” Brey said.
Definitely, with just two games left in the non-conference slate before Notre Dame opens the ACC marked as defending tourney champions. Absolutely, after Brey puffed his chest out two days earlier, stumping for the Irish as the state’s most consistent program.
For most of Saturday afternoon during the Crossroads Classic, Notre Dame (7-3) looked like an evolving version of last year as Bonzie Colson (career-high 24 points) and V.J. Beachem (18 points) off set a shrinking Irish backcourt.
Notre Dame built a 56-40 lead five minutes into the second half. Then Irish legs went dead. Indiana (9-3) closed on a 40-17 run. Rallying from that 16-point deficit marked the biggest comeback of Tom Crean’s embattled eight years with the Hoosiers.
Demetrius Jackson and Steve Vasturia, Notre Dame’s most regular threats from distance, labored throughout. Jackson went 4-of-17 from the field and finished with a season-low nine points. He went 0-of-6 on his jump shot.
“I think DJ wanted it so bad playing down here, an in-state kid,” Brey said. “He probably played too hard at times. That’s why he didn’t shoot it as well.
“He wanted it so much for his team, he was almost a little over-wired today. That’s OK. I almost expected that.”
Vasturia finished 0-of-5 from three-point range, including an air ball when the game pressure built during the second half. That came with 4:20 to go after Jackson missed a layup, grabbed a rebound and kicked it to Vasturia at the top of the key.
The junior hit that shot all last season. He air balled this one.
Indiana grabbed that gift and kicked it forward to Yogi Ferrell, whose quick triple tied it 71-71.
Brey called timeout.
But the Irish had few answers, as fatigue played a part in Notre Dame’s collapse.
“I don’t know,” Brey said. “I think Steve has played those extended minutes and made big shots before. It is hard guarding (Indiana) in man because they come at you so hard, barreling down hill. That probably wears on you more than probably playing against a different kind of offense.”
Indiana wouldn’t take the lead until the final minute when Collin Hartman canned a pair of free throws to push the Hoosiers ahead 75-73. It was Indiana’s first lead since the 14:28 mark of the first half.
“We wanted this win really bad,” Colson said. “Obviously to not get the win hurt us, but obviously we’ve got to bounce back.”
Pressed on how Notre Dame’s bench may expand into ACC play, Brey had no concrete answers for Matt Ryan, Matt Farrell and Austin Torres. Torres played less than a minute, Farrell didn’t attempt a shot (finished with four assists), and Ryan went 1-of-5 from the field.
That all left Brey to load his starters with minutes and the weight of that assignment grew through the second half. Jackson (39 minutes), Vasturia (37) Colson (35) and Beachem (32) barely came off the floor.
After hitting their first seven shots of the second half, Notre Dame missed its final seven as Indiana closed on a 9-0 run, proving as lethal as advertised offensively.
“I know we beat a really, really good team no doubt about that,” Crean said.
Just not in the final 10 minutes.