Rarely does a year go by without a Mike Brey-coached team coming away from an opposing team’s home arena with a scalp or two along the way.
In 2014-15, it was North Carolina, North Carolina State, Clemson and Louisville en route to a 7-2 road mark in the ACC. Back in the Big East days, it was Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Louisville or Connecticut on a fairly regular basis.
Add another pelt to the pile with Notre Dame’s resilient 95-91 victory Saturday over No. 9 Duke, a young but talented squad that has now lost two in a row and four on the season, including its first at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
“We weren’t very good in this environment last year,” said Brey, referring to the 90-60 loss last January when a 43-7 Blue Devil run was the avalanche that buried the Irish.
“But the returning guys that had been in it handled it with great poise.”
The poise came from the top with Demetrius Jackson tossing in 24 points on 10-of-16 shooting from the field while Steve Vasturia scored a career-high 22 points on 8-of-16 shooting, including 4-of-6 from three-point range.
Meanwhile, a relative youngster – sophomore Bonzie Colson – scored 31 points on 12-of-19 shooting to go along with 11 rebounds (eight offensive). As much as anyone, Colson willed Notre Dame to a road victory over Duke.
Notre Dame turned the basketball over just six times in one of the most difficult venues to remain focused and stay poised. The Irish also out-rebounded the Blue Devils, 38-33, including 16-11 on the offensive glass.
After making 28-of-32 free throws Wednesday in Notre Dame’s victory over Georgia Tech, the Irish went into Cameron and converted 80 percent (16-of-20) from the charity stripe.
Notre Dame destroyed Duke in the paint, scoring 50 points to the Blue Devils’ 26.
“Demetrius and Steve set the tone for us the whole game and made us believe,” Brey said. “We got enough defensive stops to get out of here. They’re such a good offensive team, and we were in a great offensive rhythm. It’s a great day of growth for us here early in the season.”
After falling behind 8-0 less than two minutes into the contest, the Irish methodically scratched their way back into the mix with Jackson’s driving basket and an assist moments later clearing the mechanism and getting Notre Dame in the flow.
It was Jackson’s basket at the 5:04 mark of the first half that gave the Irish their first lead. It would be short-lived as Duke went on a 9-0 run to take a 50-45 halftime lead. But when Colson converted a conventional three-point play at the 17:42 mark of the second half, the Irish were on top and would remain that way virtually the rest of the way.
“We really fought, and that’s an area where we needed to be better,” Brey said. “I’m hoping this is something that gives us some confidence. Maybe we can go on a little run in this league.”
It was the kind of victory that can be the difference between making or not making the NCAA tournament, or perhaps snagging a higher seed come tournament time.
“It’s mid-January,” Brey said. “The Dow Jones ain’t good, but ours is up, baby.”
It is a rare day when a Mike Brey-coached team wins the battle of the bench players, but that was before Bonzie Colson provided Notre Dame with such a weapon.
Colson went to the sixth man role Wednesday against Georgia Tech as first-time starter Matt Ryan shined. Colson had a secondary role against the Yellow Jackets, but barged onto the podium Saturday at Duke by scoring a career-high 31 points on 12-of-19 shooting with an incredible eight offensive rebounds.
Led by Colson and pesky freshman Rex Pflueger, Notre Dame’s bench out-scored Duke’s subs, 38-2. Additionally, Colson was 2-of-3 from three-point range and 5-of-5 from the free-throw line.
Pflueger’s presence on the defensive end in particular helped sway things Notre Dame’s way. He logged 23 minutes, providing a defensive spark on several of Duke’s offensive weapons while scoring seven points, blocking a couple of shots and assisting on two others.
“Bonzie is a flat-out warrior,” Brey said. “He gave the rest of our group confidence. I wanted to start him in the second half because I didn’t want to mess around. I thought we needed him in there to get off to a good start.
“He’s a warrior. He loves atmospheres like this. That was a flat-out clinic what he did offensively, and I hope it’s something that gets him even more confident.”
Duke and head coach Mike Krzyzewski have been short-handed for a month now without senior Amile Jefferson, who was averaging 10.3 points and 9.3 rebounds per game before fracturing his foot in mid-December.
Leading the way for the Blue Devils were a couple of freshmen – Luke Kennard and Brandon Ingram – who combined for 55 points, 8-of-13 from three-point range and eight rebounds. Vasturia and Pflueger helped limit Duke’s leading scorer, Grayson Allen, to just 11 field-goal attempts, although he still managed to score 18 points.
Krzyzewski played eight players Saturday against the Irish, but the contributions beyond the starters were minimal. Freshman Derryck Thornton made both of his free-throw attempts for the only Blue Devil bench points.
AUGUSTE HANGS IN THERE
Zach Auguste, Notre Dame’s 6-foot-10 senior who is a convenient whipping boy when things turn sour for the Irish, painted himself in a corner most of the afternoon against Duke.
While Jackson, Vasturia and Colson were playing like veterans and leading the way, Auguste faced a nightmare of adversity, converting just 3-of-12 shots from the field with every one of those nine misses from point-blank range.
The frustration was evident at times, but Auguste battled through it, logging 30 minutes, scoring nine points and, most importantly, snagging 14 rebounds (10 defensive) as the Blue Devils couldn’t shake the resilient Irish.
With the Irish leading by six, Auguste missed around the bucket with 2:44 remaining. Moments later, Brey removed Auguste from the lineup. But he was back on the court when Jackson missed the front end of a one-and-one with four seconds remaining, grabbing the flat bounce off the front of the rim for his fourth offensive rebound of the game.
With 1.7 seconds remaining, Auguste – a 61.9 percent free-throw shooter on the season – made both free throws to give the Irish an insurmountable four-point lead.