Jan. 4, 2018
By John Heisler
It just so happened that a frigid, late night with the snow howling outside Purcell Pavilion provided the setting for Notre Dame basketball history Wednesday night.
Irish coach Mike Brey’s chase for the all-time record for victories came down to this matchup with a 10-4 North Carolina State team, with a Notre Dame win pushing Brey’s total to 394, one past that of Digger Phelps in his 20 seasons on the bench.
The scene was set and all the pieces in place, including Phelps sitting on the baseline prepared to present the game ball to Brey in a passing of the torch, if you will.
And, truth be told, the game turned out to be the easiest element of the evening-with Notre Dame setting a mark for most Irish points in the first half of an Atlantic Coast Conference game (48)-and then watching as the Wolfpack missed their first 11 shots of the second half while Notre Dame went on a 17-2 run.
Ultimately the Irish could name the final score.
But if Notre Dame fans wanted drama, they got plenty.
The news Tuesday that All-American Bonzie Colson would have surgery Thursday on a foot fracture and miss eight weeks threw a major crimp into Brey’s winter plans.
Then, with a little more than five minutes left in the first half Wednesday, senior guard Matt Farrell went down in a heap under the basket and an ankle injury kept him on the bench the rest of the way (and likely will keep him from playing Saturday at Syracuse).
It’s safe to say these were some lineup combinations Brey and his staff had not spent much time with. As Brey noted after the game, at times it kind of looked like next year’s lineup.
No Colson? No worries. Freshman D.J. Harvey took his slot in the starting five and smoothly delivered 13 first-half points and 17 for the night.
No Farrell for a while? No worries. T.J. Gibbs became the primary ball-handler and he finished with 22 points and five assists. Martinas Geben had 13 rebounds.
The final number for the 12-3 Irish was 88-58.
At the finish, it was tough to tell if Brey was more pleased by the record-setting career accomplishment or the way his team looked by night’s end.
The evening began like most others. Tim Brando, who has been doing play by play of Irish games dating back to the Phelps era, was courtside for the ACC Network telecast. A local television station did a pregame show to mark Brey’s potential record.
Colson stood on the sidelines in street clothes during warmups, chatting with Irish operations chief Harold Swanagan.
Brey shared his normal three keys on offense and defense with his players-“talk in transition,” “guard your guy,” “one and done on defense,” then “stretch them in transition,” “we control the tempo” and “crash the glass on offense.”
“We don’t need to be different because Bonzie’s out,” Brey said. “We do not need to get outside our roles. Do what we do. Keep moving that ball.”
The video board noted that Brey was tied for the most wins at Notre Dame.
The Irish proved coolly efficient in the opening half. Knocking down five of seven shots paved the way to a 25-20 edge. A 6-0 run fueled by threes from Gibbs and Rex Pflueger pushed the advantage to 41-26 thanks in part to seven steals by the Irish.
Notre Dame led 48-36 at halftime (after shooting 61 percent from the floor), and the Irish merited a standing ovation at the break from the crowd of 7,563.
Said Brey at half, “Hell of a half, man, hell of a half. Way to attack. Way to outcompete their butts. We’ve got 19 deflections. We’re doing a good job on the ball screens, we’re doing a good job switching when we need to. Let’s keep attacking. Another 20.”
The start of the second half quickly eliminated any concern about the record.
Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” blared from the sound system, and that had to resonate with Brey, Colson, Farrell and the rest of the Irish.
The two teams combined to miss 11 of their first 12 shots. And it never got much better for the visitors. A 7-0 Irish run made it 61-38 and North Carolina State finally managed its first second-half basket at the 11:02 mark.
At the final 2:67 timeout, ramification of the record started to sink in for Brey. The video board noted his first win at Notre Dame, his first win over a top-rated opponent and his 300th win. A Brey video board close-up featured a big smile. The fans stood and clapped for the final 30 seconds.
Phelps presented Brey with the ceremonial basketball, a banner dropped from the rafters noting Brey’s achievement (with Brey receiving a smaller framed version for himself from athletics director Jack Swarbrick). Almost immediately upon conclusion of the game the 393 banner on the catwalk flipped to 394. Everybody in the locker room wore a specially made COACH BREY 394 shirt.
“This will always be a great memory, not because of 394 and the record,” said Brey to his squad in the locker room. “It was what we went through in the last couple of days, losing Bonzie and then Matty goes down halfway through the game.
“You just played fabulously and fearlessly and everybody contributed. It’s like we reinvented ourselves in 24 hours, and I thought it would take a while. Let’s just keep plugging, fellas. Let’s be a great story. We got the makeup to do that.
“I didn’t know that, I didn’t know who we are. But we had one practice and one shoot-around and we had a great offensive performance in that first half.
“I love that this team was the team that got me over the hump.”
Brey sounded relieved that the 394 banner now will come down.
A 2-0 ACC record is a number he’d prefer to focus on in the foreseeable future.