Dec. 20, 2015

Almost five minutes into the second half of Notre Dame’s Crossroads Classic men’s basketball outing Saturday afternoon against Indiana at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Irish fans had primed themselves to declare their team Midseason De Facto Big Ten Conference champions.

A referendum was on tap to declare the official conference colors as blue, green and gold.

That came with the Irish holding a 16-point lead at 56-40. And that came after previous Notre Dame wins this season over league members Iowa and Illinois, plus two others about a year ago this time over Purdue and Michigan State.

Irish coach Mike Brey had little to complain about to that point. An unstoppable Bonzie Colson had hit eight of his nine shots for 18 points and V.J. Beachem hadn’t missed a shot (13 points).

The Hoosiers had no one who could guard Colson or Zach Auguste in the lane. “You can’t bring double coverage in the post with their shooters,” was Indiana coach Tom Crean’s assessment later.

The Indiana crew was back on its heels, and Notre Dame already had blocked 10 of its shots. The Irish hit their first seven shots after halftime, and Indiana missed nine of 11 early. The red-sweatered Hoosier fans had done little other than sit on their hands. Brey’s group had made Indiana look just plain vanilla.

Then, it all changed. Despite Brey’s plethora of shooters, Crean opted to go to a 2-3 zone and it absolutely “bumfuzzled” Notre Dame. Steve Vasturia never scored after the break and did not make a three all afternoon. The Hoosiers started playing “downhill,” as both Brey and Cream described it. Indiana hit six second-half three-pointers to help slice the margin, and Notre Dame never hit a free throw after halftime.

Still, a Colson hoop made it 73-71 for the Irish with 2:53 to go, even after missing 11 of their previous 14 shots until that bucket. Notre Dame never scored again. The Hoosiers posted the last nine points of the game (all from the free-throw line), finished with 20 offensive rebounds and won it 80-73.

“We didn’t deserve it,” Brey told his squad matter of factly after the game.” We couldn’t close it defensively, and we never really got a stop late. We were okay for 32 minutes, and then the last eight minutes . . . . They’d get a tip-in or a tip dunk on a second shot and it made ’em feel like they can do it.

“We’ve been used to finishing things like this. We’ve got to dig in and be better defensively. They got no second shots for 32 minutes and then . . . . But this is a long haul . . . .”


If Brey wanted to join Irish fans (including former all-star and Indianapolis product Chris Thomas, who watched from the front row) in celebrating their team’s Big Ten dominance, it was tough to squash his exuberance given the Notre Dame play in the early going.

Here’s how it happened:

— The Hoosiers broke to a 5-0 advantage, but little went smoothly for them after that. Brey urged his team to execute at the Irish pace, and Notre Dame managed to do that exquisitely-sometimes pushing the basketball and other times picking its spots.

“Let’s rebound and run. Understand when we want to grind it a little-make them chase us,” Brey told his squad before the game.

— The Hoosiers hit the skids early when 6-10 rookie postman Thomas Bryant picked up his second foul 166 seconds into the contest and had to sit down. The Irish hit 11 of their first 16 shots, led by Colson’s golden touch. After seven lead changes Notre Dame went on a 9-0 run over a 1:15 stretch and led 33-21 at the 6:45 juncture (with Indiana missing seven of eight field-goal attempts).

— Indiana pulled back to a 33-26 deficit, but Hoosier guard Yogi Ferrell was called for a charge with four minutes to go. Crean’s team missed five of its eight first-half free throws and misfired on six of its final seven shots leading to halftime. Notre Dame, to that point, had made Indiana look like a shell of the team leading the country in field-goal percentage and leading the Big Ten in scoring (89.0 points), three-point field-goal percentage, steals and turnovers forced.

— “I see 31 points on the board for them,” Brey told his players at halftime. “We’ve got to continue to defend. Zach, you’ve been fabulous down there. I loved how we picked our spots, running, then grinding a little.

“We checked the box getting out of the gate. Can we do it in the second half on the road? Every possession is golden on the road. Let’s play the tightest 20 minutes we’ve played on the road in this atmosphere.”

Meanwhile, Crean acknowledged it was a “tough” Hoosier locker room at half-and that was hardly surprising.

— The Irish began the second half on fire, with Beachem downing a three-pointer followed 23 seconds later by a dunk. Auguste navigated nicely in the lane around Bryant and the Irish were up 50-35. At the first media timeout of the second half, Indiana had made only one of its last six shots, only two of its last 11, only four of 13 overall. Irish eyes were smiling.

“There were probably some people who turned the game off,” admitted Crean later.

— Suddenly, the three became a Hoosier weapon. James Blackmon Jr. and Robert Johnson nailed those sort of bombs a minute apart, and two Bryant free throws cut the margin to eight points with 13:08 remaining at 56-48. The Irish tried its own zone, but Indiana made five straight shots over one stretch. Notre Dame countered by making four of its own five shots and an Auguste lay-in made it 69-61 with 7:25 to go.

— Maybe the biggest shot of the day from a momentum standpoint came at 4:13 when a Ferrell three-pointer tied the game (prompting a Notre Dame timeout and the first time anybody noticed anyone in red standing or singing “Indiana, Our Indiana”). To that point Ferrell had made only two of seven shots and he amazingly hadn’t scored since the 10:39 mark of the first half. In fact, the glossy matchup between Indiana products Ferrell (eight points and five turnovers) and Notre Dame’s Demetrius Jackson (four of 17 shooting, despite six assists and seven rebounds) turned out to be mostly a dud (their two images appeared side by side on the cover of the game program), though Brey suggested “they really went after each other.” He also admitted he wasn’t surprised that Jackson simply “played too hard because he wanted it so bad.”

— Colson got that layup at 2:55 for the last Irish lead (his 24 points easily marked a career high), but that’s all there was in terms of Irish production-one field goal over the final 6:32. With the score still tied at 73, Colson missed two free throws (Notre Dame’s only attempts in the final 20 minutes) at 1:15 and that was it. The Irish had missed eight of their last 10 shots–then Auguste fouled out, Jackson lost the ball in traffic, Vasturia missed a three from the left corner and Jackson missed a three.


Discouraged after the game? Of course the Irish were. “Tough to swallow” was the phrase Notre Dame’s coach used with the media.

Considering a two-point loss to Monmouth and a one-pointer against Alabama, Notre Dame quite easily could be unbeaten as of this morning. Yet Brey understands there will be plenty more of these nail-biters to come in Atlantic Coast Conference play that begins two weeks from yesterday in Charlottesville, Virginia.

The Irish shot 45.5 percent in the second half-nothing to be ashamed of-but they gave up 49 second-half points, even in making the exact same number (15) of second-half field goals as the Hoosiers. And they misfired on 10 of their final 11 shots.

“You’ve got to make jump shots over their zone to escape today,” Brey noted. “They covered a lot of (our) looks.”

Still, Auguste in the final 20 minutes made all five of his shots, Beachem made four of seven, Colson four of eight (so a combined 65 percent shooting by that trio). Only four Notre Dame players scored after the break.

“We let it slip away,” came from Beachem, a Fort Wayne, Indiana, product who joined Jackson, Ferrell (Indianapolis) and Blackmon (Marion) among players on both rosters with in-state connections.

Second-half free-throw shooting? Thirteen of 15 for Indiana-none for two for the Irish.

This morning Hoosier fans are still trying to figure out how it all came together late for their team.

Irish fans are wondering how the headline championing a fourth consecutive Crossroads Classic victory got exchanged so quickly for one touting the greatest comeback in the Crean era.

Seldom has an understanding of a 40-minute game been so clear.

John Heisler, senior associate athletics director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 1978. A South Bend, Indiana, native, he is a 1976 graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a member of the College Sports Information Directors of America Hall of Fame.

Heisler produces a weekly football commentary piece for titled “Sunday Brunch,” along with a Thursday football preview piece. He is editor of the award-winning “Strong of Heart” series. Here is a selection of other features published recently by Heisler:

DeShone Kizer: North of Confident, South of Cocky

— Top 10 Things Learned About the Irish So Far in 2015:

— Brey’s Crew Receives Rings, Prepared to Raise Banner-and Moves On

— Jim McLaughlin: New Irish Volleyball Boss Is All About the Numbers:

— Men’s Soccer Establishes Itself with Exclamation:

— Australia Rugby Visit Turns into Great Sharing of Sports Performance Practices:

— Bud Schmitt Doesn’t Need a Map to Find Notre Dame Stadium:

— Sunday Brunch: Irish Leave RISP, Still Win Game No. 10

— Remembering Bob Kemp: Notre Dame Lacrosse Family Honors Devoted Father

— Community Service a Record-Setting Event for Irish Athletics in 2014-15: