NOTRE DAME Ind. – Just look at that shirt.
Mike Brey emerged from the locker room Tuesday night after Notre Dame’s 88-81 win over Wake Forest with his white button down untucked at the waist, unbuttoned at the cuffs and wrinkled all over. It was the style of a man who knew Notre Dame’s season had teetered before a bold lineup change maybe saved it.
“Man, we needed that,” Brey roared to open his postgame press conference, having since re-tucked and re-buttoned. “We needed that one, baby.”
How Notre Dame got it started after a ragged first half when Brey tried to force his regular eight-man rotation into different spots. The Irish were starting their third lineup in three games and had lost four straight, making any adjustment seem both logical and grab bag. Rex Pflueger started on Tuesday, replacing Austin Torres, who started at North Carolina, who replaced Martinas Geben, who started against Duke.
Still, the Irish went down 41-36 by the break.
From there Brey went exclusively small. It might be how Notre Dame stays.
By riding Bonzie Colson, Steve Vasturia, Matt Farrell and V.J. Beachem for virtually the entire second half while rotating in only T.J. Gibbs and Pflueger, Notre Dame made Wake Forest chase five shooters at once. The Demon Deacons rarely got there as the Irish shot 9-of-14 from distance in the second half, put up 52 points and even found a way to not get killed on the boards.
“I think it’s safe to say when we go small we move the ball really well and have a lot of guys that can get in the lane and make plays,” Farrell said. “It’s obviously hard for teams to guard us when we go that small, but we’re giving up rebounds on the other end.”
Yet despite never going taller than the 6-foot-8 Beachem, Notre Dame lost the second half rebounding battle only 21-19.
Colson saved the Irish on the glass with 16 rebounds to go with a season-high 27 points. He also finished with five blocks, more than the entire Wake Forest team.
Colson also logged 36 minutes, the same total as Farrell (16 points, six assists) and Beachem (19 points, four blocks). Vasturia wasn’t far off, turning his 35 minutes into 17 points and seven rebounds.
After a draining loss at North Carolina two days earlier, this was the kind of heavy-minute performance Brey knew Notre Dame might need against Wake Forest, even if he wasn’t sure the Irish could deliver it. Brey saw the fatigue in warmups. He heard it from Beachem too when the senior admitted his legs were shot and couldn’t drive.
“I think everybody is exhausted,” Beachem said. “Just getting back flowing was great for us. We just feel like we have a little more space when we play smaller.”
Still, Notre Dame trailed 50-42 just five minutes into the second half as Wake Forest hurt the Irish with size in the post. Forward John Collins finished with 24 points and 14 rebounds, often going head-to-head with Colson.
But after going down by eight, Notre Dame put on 14-4 run during the next three minutes to go ahead 56-54 with 12:03 to go. A Colson three-pointer ended that spurt. Wake Forest never led again.
It was all an unconventional night’s work for Brey, who admitted he’d faked serenity around his roster in the prep for Wake Forest. He even shot half-court shots in practice to lighten the mood. In the end it all worked, even if it all worked just barely.
“Total show. I was tied up in knots. But I faked it like a son of a gun,” Brey said. “I know how bad they wanted it and they knew how bad we needed it.”
Ultimately Notre Dame got it, even if it didn’t look perfect from start to finish.