THE JUNKYARD DOG(S)
Trailing by eight points five minutes into the second half – a little more than 48 hours removed from a valiant loss in Greensboro against mighty North Carolina – even the strongest-willed teams could have melted down, especially amidst a four-game losing streak.
But over the final 14:48, Notre Dame (18-7, 7-5) scored 46 points to Wake Forest’s 31 as the Irish overcame fatigue and a vastly-improved Demon Deacon squad (14-10, 5-7) for an 88-81 victory at Purcell Pavilion Tuesday night.
“I actually thought when we went down 13 in Greensboro -- because I knew this game was going to stay on Tuesday -- it flashed in my mind, ‘Man, maybe I just pull the guys out and play the blue team,’” said Irish head coach Mike Brey. “I would have had four guys mug me in the huddle, but it went through my mind.
“We’re worn out. It was grueling because the intensity of the game in Carolina was incredible. We fought through some stuff with some mental toughness.”
Down to a second-half rotation of six, Notre Dame converted 15-of-27 from the field (55.6 percent), including 9-of-14 from three-point range.
The ‘big four’ of Bonzie Colson, V.J. Beachem, Matt Farrell and Steve Vasturia did most of the heavy lifting while Rex Pflueger – starting for the second time in his career – and T.J. Gibbs did the rest.
Colson finished with 27 points, 16 rebounds and five blocked shots while battling 6-foot-10 John Collins in the post defensively. Beachem scored 19 points on 5-of-12 three-point shooting as well as a pair of long two-pointers. Farrell continued his torrid three-point shooting to finish with 16 points. Vasturia broke out of his scoring slump – 21 points in the last three games combined -- with 17 points while matching Farrell’s 3-of-5 shooting from beyond the arc.
Colson and Farrell went the distance in the second half, both finishing with 36 minutes. Beachem and Vasturia each logged 18 minutes in the second half, and 36 and 35 for the game respectively.
Gibbs and Pflueger combined for the rest with Gibbs tossing in seven second-half points (5-of-5 from the line) and Pflueger notching three of Notre Dame’s 12 blocked shots.
“That’s my role,” said Colson, who recorded his 15th double-double of the season and ninth in 12 ACC games.
“I want to be that guy that gives it his all and tries to get every rebound. That’s something that me and Coach (Ryan) Humphrey talked about as soon as he got the job. I’m focused and locked on that aspect of the game. Every rebound possible.”
Even Colson’s teammates stand in awe of his performance.
“Unbelievable player,” Farrell succinctly summarized. “What he does being 6-6 against guys like that, doing it every night…it’s honestly incredible.
“Before every game, I tell him I need the junkyard dog, the Bonzie that’s pounding his chest. I need him playing with emotion because that gets us going. The effort, the energy… He’s an even better person. That’s my roommate.”
The spindly Beachem probably encountered fatigue more than any other Irish player in the short rotation.
“We were going through a slow shooting drill (Monday) and (Beachem) was cringing,” Brey said. “Even today, he was tight.”
Beachem made no bones about his weariness after the game.
“It’s been tough,” Beachem said. “This is the most tired I’ve ever been, maybe since AAU when you have like three games in a day.
“Playing at Carolina, tough atmosphere, travel, Super Bowl, classes yesterday and today…it’s all worth it to get back on the right track.”
When the Irish play small – Martin Geben and Austin Torres logged a combined six minutes, all in the first half – chances are they’re going to get pounded on the boards.
Wake Forest had a 43-35 rebounding advantage, a 28-20 points-in-the-paint edge, and a commanding 17-7 lead on the offensive glass.
There’s only one solution – making shots and making free throws.
“It was going to have to be that kind of game where we spread it,” Brey said. “Five-out with a smaller lineup helps the four most important guys on the team. It was evident in their numbers -- the second half of Carolina and the second half tonight.”
Notre Dame out-scored North Carolina 42-41 in the second half of the 83-76 loss in Greensboro. The Irish overcame Wake Forest with a 52-40 scoring advantage over the final 20 minutes and a decisive 46-31 over the last 15 minutes.
“We gave up 17 offensive rebounds, but we were efficient enough offensively to get away from them,” Brey said.
The Irish shot an incredible 9-of-14 from three-point range in the second half (64.3 percent) and 13-of-27 (48.1 percent) for the game. Beachem (5-of-12), Farrell (3-of-5), Vasturia (3-of-5) and Colson (2-of-2) were a combined 13-of-24 (54.1 percent) from beyond the arc.
Trailing 50-42, Farrell got it going with a three. After a blocked shot by Colson, the quartet of Vasturia, Beachem, Colson (following two missed free throws) and Farrell each hit a three to get off to a 5-of-8 start in the second half.
Still trailing by three, Colson scored inside, and then launched a corner jumper with 12:02 left that gave the Irish their first lead in more than 14 minutes. Wake Forest tied it at 60 with 9:11 left, but Notre Dame gained the lead on a Beachem three-pointer at 7:59, and the Demon Deacons never led again.
“In ‘five-out,’ he’s not in the low post anymore,” said Brey of Colson. “He’s handling the ball on the perimeter, and because he’s played out there with the ball in his hands, he’s gotten more comfortable.
“He has a very good stroke. The two he made, that’s just a fearless guy.”
Colson refused to allow the Irish to lose, regardless what area of the court he inhabited. The two missed free throws early in the second half fueled Colson’s desire to do more.
“Coach Brey always tells me, ‘Calm feet,’” said Colson, who made 5-of-7 field-goal attempts in the second half, including those two long-range shots. “Coach (Ryan) Ayers has been giving me confidence to shoot the three. I just looked them in.
“Coach Brey says you’ve got to move on to the next play (after the two missed free throws), and that’s what happened.”
Colson, Beachem, Farrell and Vasturia combined for 45 of Notre Dame’s 52 second-half points while shooting 15-of-21 from the field, including 9-of-13 from three-point range.
What the big four didn’t tally, Gibbs did, thanks to 5-of-5 from the free-throw line.
“That’s what we’re capable of,” said Vasturia, who shot twice, both made three-pointers, in the second half.
“We were showing signs of doing that, but we weren’t winning games. None of it matters if you’re not winning games, but putting 52 up when we were down at half is big for us. Our confidence should be high Saturday (against Florida State).”
The Irish also seem to have regained their free-throw stroke. After making just 48-of-71 (67.6 percent) in its first four ACC losses, Notre Dame has now made 34-of-41 (82.9 percent) in its last two games against North Carolina (17-of-20) and Wake Forest (17-of-21).
STAT SHEET STUFFERS
Colson did a little bit of everything, in addition to his 27 points and 16 rebounds. There were the timely five blocked shots as well as the two assists and two steals.
Despite the strong performance from the big four, the Irish couldn’t have done it without Gibbs, who ultimately made just 1-of-5 shots from the field.
After a missed shot and one assist in eight minutes of action in the first half, he added another field goal, the five free throws and three assists in 14 second-half minutes.
“Rex did an amazing job today of getting his nose in plays,” said Gibbs, deflecting his praise to Pflueger. “That’s where it started with Rex’s steal and rebound. Just feeding off his energy. He does that whether he’s starting or coming off the bench.”
Pflueger had three of Notre Dame’s 12 blocked shots – five more than their previous ACC high against Louisville – while surpassing the eight against Loyola in the third game of the season. He also had two steals and a couple of assists.
With Farrell’s 3-of-5 shooting from three-point range, he’s now 32-of-63 (50.7 percent) on the season in 12 ACC games. He also had six of Notre Dame’s 17 assists against Wake Forest and numerous other passes that led to baskets.
Other than Colson, no one on the Notre Dame squad stuffs the stat sheet quite like Farrell.
Entering play Tuesday night, Farrell was fourth in the league in assists (5.0/game), sixth in steals (1.5/game), third in three-point percentage, ninth in three-pointers made (2.6/game) and fourth in minutes played (36.9/game).
“It’s like a big weight lifted off your shoulders,” said Farrell of Notre Dame’s 52 second-half points. “Finally getting flowing again, that’s good momentum going forward.”