March 19, 2018
By John Heisler
The locker room door closed and it was just them.
No cell phones.
Just them-University of Notre Dame men’s basketball coach Mike Brey, his staff and players.
It was St. Patrick’s Day Saturday at Purcell Pavilion-a day Brey and his charges thought they would celebrate with a second-round National Invitation Tournament win over Penn State.
It didn’t happen that way. Penn State guarded the daylights out of the Irish, making every offensive move come hard for Notre Dame.
It ended in a 10-point Nittany Lion victory.
It ended with Irish senior star Bonzie Colson spending most of the last dozen minutes on the bench with a foot issue.
It ended like it always does in the postseason-with a bit of a sudden crash.
No one prepares for moments like these.
As much as players and coaches understand their next loss will be their last, they push that thought to the backs of their brains in favor of looks forward to a potential third-round home game that would have been played Tuesday or Wednesday.
But it did not happen that way, and so Brey, Colson and the Irish were left to pick up the pieces in their locker room. They tried to find a way to attach some final overarching meaning to a fractured season that didn’t play out the way Notre Dame might have hoped back in November when the Irish reveled as a high pick in Atlantic Coast Conference preseason polls and Colson listed as a first-team preseason All-American.
So Brey did what he always has done.
He made every member of the Irish squad stand up.
He made his way from one locker to the next, looked each player in the eyes and shook his hand.
He did that with Colson.
He did that with senior sparkplug Matt Farrell.
He started with Durham on one side of the locker room and ended with Gregory.
Brey thanked them all for being Notre Dame men, for hanging in with him all winter long against maybe the most adverse injury situations any of his teams had confronted.
There were no tears this time. Maybe it all came to an end too quickly. Assuredly there were plenty of emotional hugs between players a few moments later when the Irish head coach finished his remarks.
The end of one season immediately prompts media speculation about the next wave of freshmen to come and where the Irish might figure by next fall.
But this was one final time for Brey to leave his guys with a little perspective.
Next year’s media guide will list their 21-15 record and a variety of other numbers that this 2017-18 team earned. But those statistics won’t fully explain the challenges that befell this team when first Colson, then Farrell and then freshman D.J. Harvey had to sit out extended periods of 2018.
Whatever roles Martinas Geben, Rex Pflueger, T.J. Gibbs, Austin Torres, John Mooney, Nik Djogo and Elijah Burns expected, those prognostications turned upside down by early January. The end result for the senior class became 103 victories over four seasons-the largest total in Irish history.
Brey appreciated the notion that hope springs eternal with kids:
“There were days when I’m really faking it, yet they’re upbeat and they’re good. This senior class will have a special place in my heart even though we did not get to the NCAA Tournament, we didn’t win the NIT, we didn’t get to the ACC championship game.
“I feel like I was dealing with men from January on. When you have good seniors like that, they help the coach.
“Because there were days when I’d be like, ‘What am I gonna tell ’em today? We just lost five in a row.'”
Irish assistant coach Ryan Ayers remembers Brey doing the same thing with handshakes when he was a player-after his senior campaign ended at Madison Square Garden after an NIT semifinal loss at the hands of the same Penn State program, in a game that finished with nearly the same final score as Saturday.
“It’s his way to congratulate everybody on the year we’ve been through together and the way they handled it,” says Ayers.
“They never complained. They stayed together.
“It’s been his ritual since even when I was here. He always talks about being a Notre Dame man. I’ve heard that since I was a freshman here. You kind of learn what it really means over your four years. Our guys kind of understood what it meant this year because we had to be really resilient.
“I remember when he did it with us.
“But it was a big deal this time because of everything we went through and how much he respects the guys.
“He said, ‘I want to shake the hands of men.’
“The end comes quickly–it just happens.
“There was some emotion this time, but when Mike shook everybody’s hands it was a sign of strength.”
Although the attending media Saturday almost immediately asked Brey to turn the page to 2018-19 when he’ll welcome his largest incoming class–Durham plus incoming freshmen Chris Doherty (6-7 forward, Marlborough, Massachusetts), Robby Carmody (6-4 guard, Mars, Pennsylvania), Dane Goodwin (6-5 guard, Upper Arlington, Ohio), Prentiss Hubb (6-3 guard, Upper Marlboro, Maryland) and Nate Laszewski (6-10 forward, Jupiter, Florida)-the Irish head coach isn’t quite ready to leave his 2017-18 squad and its noteworthy achievements behind.
There will be a public event in April for this Notre Dame team to celebrate its season.
Then, the seniors will move on to the next steps in their lives. The underclassmen will work to take the next steps up the Irish basketball ladder. And Brey will look forward to his 19th season at the helm.
But on Saturday, Brey chose a ritualistic gesture to memorialize his last moments with this unique group in uniform.
The hard realities of life left them all with the notion that the year ranks as a season that maybe always will be viewed through the lens of what might have been.
Brey’s handshakes told them they handled it like men.