March 1, 2018
By John Heisler
There he was–working at 5 o’clock, some two hours before tipoff.
He put up a series of soft, 10-foot jump shots with University of Notre Dame assistant coaches Ryan Humphrey and Ryan Ayers on site to provide the assists.
Yet, this was no normal evening for Irish senior forward Bonzie Colson.
And there were plenty of great touches over the course of the night as Notre Dame defeated a winless-in-the-Atlantic Coast Conference Pittsburgh team 73-56 in a game that probably wasn’t as close as the score indicated:
–With Geben’s parents on hand, the Lithuanian national hymn (“Tautiska giesme”) played prior to the National Anthem, while Irish students waved tiny green-, yellow- and red-striped Lithuanian flags and a larger version hung from the catwalk about the Pitt bench. Notre Dame’s public address announcer introduced Geben as “the most improved player in the ACC.”
–Colson’s younger sister Sydni sang an inspired version of “The Star Spangled Banner.”
–Early in the contest came a nifty video tribute to Farrell’s recently accomplished 1,000-point career total.
–Students and fans loved every minute of Torres’ nine-minute appearance that featured three-for-three field-goal shooting.
–And maybe the great disappointment of the night came when Gregory could not connect on any of his four shots over the final two minutes.
But, seriously, in his first game appearance in two months, Colson plastered his name all over the evening-even down to the coincidence that he was the featured player on the game ticket.
In a somewhat fractured season that saw great Irish expectations dissolve the first week of January when Colson and then Farrell (he missed five games with an ankle injury) went down, Notre Dame’s potential came rushing back to the forefront Wednesday night.
In the absence of Colson–and sometimes Farrell, as well as Rex Pflueger and now freshman D.J. Harvey-Irish coaches simplified the approach.
Whereas earlier in the year, the Irish scouting report on the locker room whiteboard would include three keys on both offense and defense, that approach has been reduced to one per end of the floor. Wednesday night’s offensive key? “Keep letting it rip!”
Irish coach Mike Brey did his best to make certain Colson’s re-introduction to the floor made sense:
“I’m excited that this is the lineup we started early in the season.
“We just need to play, read and react–and take good shots. Bonzie, for you, just nice and easy, man, just play. We don’t need to force anything.”
So, how quickly would the Bonz effect take hold? Whew, it did not take long.
Colson corralled a defensive rebound in the first 15 seconds and grabbed one at the offensive end of the floor 15 seconds later. The official play-by-play sheet said he scored at 18:09, again at 17:32 and had a third hoop at 16:55. Colson had eight points and four rebounds in the first five minutes-and he did it in his usual fashion, with his ultra-smooth touch around the rim and seemingly without breaking a sweat.
After T.J. Gibbs nailed the last of his three three-pointers to key a run of 16 straight points by Notre Dame, the Irish led 30-13 and finally 39-23 at halftime.
Colson had played 12 minutes to accumulate this stat line: four-of-six shooting, zero of one from three-point range, six rebounds, one assist and two blocks.
Brey loved the Irish defense more than anything else:
“That’s all I looked at before I walked off there–we gave up 23 points. We’re moving the ball and getting great stuff.”
Colson hit another jump shot and had a defensive rebound in the first 29 seconds of the second half. A layup by Colson (naturally) provided Notre Dame’s biggest lead of the night at 45-23.
The Irish generally coasted from there-with Colson finishing with a dozen points, nine rebounds and three blocks in 21 minutes on the floor. Brey and longtime Irish trainer Skip Meyer had talked before the game about 20 minutes being the expectation, and they basically hit that number.
Farrell and Gibbs both scored 14. Geben had nine plus 13 rebounds. Notre Dame limited Pitt to .333 shooting and outrebounded the Panthers 51-35. Elijah Burns and Nik Djogo had seven rebounds each in a combined 30 minutes.
The seniors exited individually to warm ovations, and Bonzie and Brey spent the final few minutes next to each other on the bench.
Once it was over, a video featuring all the seniors played on the board. The team stood arm in arm for one last playing of the Alma Mater. Colson accentuated a familiar theme in his brief remarks to the fans by suggesting the Irish were “not done yet.”
“What a special night,” Brey told his team after the game. “We couldn’t have scripted it any better-how we got started, how we played and how well our seniors played. What a great memory for you guys-and you deserve it. That’s 100 career wins for this senior class. An amazing feat, I’m really proud of you.”
The Irish turn the page quickly, with top-rated Virginia qualifying as Notre Dame’s final regular-season challenge Saturday in Charlottesville.
“Think about us-after we lost to North Carolina State we were 3-7 in the league,” said Brey. “We tore the stat sheets up and we’ve won five of seven since then.”
No one had to say it, but no opponent now will look forward to playing Notre Dame, a now nearly fully restored unit that boasts better potential than its 18-12 record would suggest.