July 3, 2014
Staci Gasser –
Chemistry, ball movement, balanced scoring and 100 percent teamwork.
The Fighting Alumni proved they were products of Coach Mike Brey’s Notre Dame program, using the typical features of his style to beat Team Barstool, 72-68, to win The Basketball Tournament at Case Gymnasium on the Boston University campus for $500,000.
“It was as we expected: a highly-contested game,” Kieran Piller, former Notre Dame walk-on and coach of the Fighting Alumni, simply said.
Tyrone Nash, MVP of the 32-team tournament and who played at Notre Dame from 2007-11, led the way offensively with 19 points on 8-for-10 shooting. Ryan Ayers (2005-09) had 15 points, five rebounds and Rob Kurz (2004-08) ended the game with 11 points, three rebounds and three assists.
“It was a great back-and-forth game. I mean [Team Barstool] obviously had all very good, talented players who have NBA experience and overseas experience,” said Ayers, who has played in the NBA developmental league and in Finland and France since graduating from Notre Dame. “They were definitely our toughest competition that we had all tournament.
“I think there were 13 lead changes in the whole game, so we definitely felt the pressure from them. Hats off to them, but we came out victorious.”
Team Barstool, named after the popular Boston-based website, boasted three NBA first-round draft picks and more than 20 years of NBA experience. The squad that featured Dahntay Jones, Matt Walsh, Andre Barrett, Danny McGrath and Josh Boone, all former BIG EAST players, were the tournament favorites.
But the Fighting Alumni, the team that consisted of players who played at Notre Dame between 2001 and 2011 and have continued their basketball careers in the NBA, the developmental league and top-ranked leagues overseas, had other ideas after being labeled the underdogs.
“From the outsider’s perspective, everybody thought Team Barstool had a distinct advantage over us, but in house we believed,” Piller said. “We have the upmost respect for Team Barstool, but we were not surprised by the outcome. We went in expecting to win.”
All players on the court were familiar with each other. Walsh played with Ayers in high school. McGrath was in Torin Francis’ (2002-06) wedding. Barrett and Chris Thomas (2001-05) have been playing against each other for years since college. Every member of the two teams has played with or against one another overseas.
The Fighting Alumni were down by five at halftime, but knew exactly what adjustments were needed to turn back tide into the Irish favor.
Team Barstool was playing three big guards- Jones who is 6-6 and Walsh and Boone who are both 6-7 –but one of them had to guard Nash or Kurz.
“It’s just not happening. Nash and Kurz are too big, too strong, too good down low so we decided to make a more concentrated effort to make sure that it was Nash they were guarding with the smaller guy and Nash got a touch in the paint on every possession,” Piller said.
Barstool also only had a roster of six guys on their team while the Fighting Alumni had 10, and Piller used that to their advantage the best way possible.
“There was a point of debate on our team where there were several times in the first half where a lot of the guys were saying we need to get a time out to give our guys rest,” he says. “Chris Thomas looked over at me and said, `Kieran, call a time-out, call a frickin’ time-out.’ And I said, `Listen, if you’re tired, I will get you a sub, but I don’t want to call a time-out because [Team Barstool] is getting tired, I don’t want to help them out.'”
Barstool’s point guard, Andre Barrett, who played at Seton Hall and four different NBA teams, had a great first half, but the Fighting Alumni knew they could neutralize him and essentially shut the team down. The Alumni had three defense-savvy guards to rotate: Tory Jackson (2006-11), Chris Thomas and Paul Gause (Seton Hall alumnus who played 2005-09 and the only non-Notre Dame graduate on the team).
“That was third adjustment: rotating those three to keep a fresh defender on Barrett to wear him down,” Pillar says. “Ultimately I think that strategy really worked because Barstool was very tired by the end of the game, and it showed. They stopped getting to the rim, got short on their jumpshots.”
As a packed crowd made the floor shake, the Fighting Alumni were opposing their will on offense and controlled the tempo of the game, but Barstool battled it through the end as neither team led by more than nine points.
In the fourth quarter, the Alumni made a few careless turnovers. Nash got in foul trouble, Ayers was cramping up, and Piller left Thomas on the bench too long. Barstool made a bit of a run but the guys got back in there and won.
“We were just able to come together as a team and weather the storm because we were down at half,” Ayers says. “We stuck to our principles and what we wanted to do with teamwork and everyone stepped up. I couldn’t have asked for a better tournament or a better turnout from our fans.”
The Alumni assisted on 14 of their 26 field goals. Despite shooting 37 percent from three, they held Team Barstool to its worst 3-point shooting as well, at 27 percent, with 1-for-13 shooting in the second half. The Alumni had a 46 shooting percentage compared to Barstool’s 39 percent from the field. Barstool also shot 17-for-25 from the foul line, with the Fighting Alumni made 13 of their 16 attempts.
“It wasn’t just that we won, it was the nature of how won,” Piller said. “It was 100 percent team effort. There were no issues, no egos, no fighting. Chris Thomas made the point in saying that every single guy involved in our team played an integral, vital role in winning that game.
“It all fell into place perfectly. The chemistry was just that good.”
And the man who bas inspired the Fighting Alumni on was not only in the crowd, he rushed the court when the clock read 00:00.
Mike Brey, who is entering his 15th season as head coach of the Notre Dame Men’s Basketball program, traveled from South Bend to Boston to cheer on his former players.
“Oh that was awesome,” Kurz said. “I think it was a validation of Coach Brey `s support in his 15 years, and it says a lot about Notre Dame as a school. We were so happy to be able to spend that time with him. He’s one of the best guys you will ever meet; he’s a great ambassador for Notre Dame and a great coach. Obviously we all have a special relationship with him. It’s really cool that, you know, I’ve been gone for six years or Chris Thomas has been gone for nine, and he would come back and support us was very special.”
“It was unbelievable having him at the game supporting us, “Ayers added. “For us to connect our college years to him and for him to continue to support us just shows the type of family that we are. To have him there meant a lot to each guy. It was a huge reunion and we were thankful to be a part of it.”
Other former Notre Dame players in the stand cheering on their teammates included Tim Abromaitis, Luke Harangody, Torrian Jones and Rick Cornett.
“We are all still best friends. Anytime we get a chance to be together as a group and compete, it definitely brings back great memories we had with Coach [Brey] and the program at Notre Dame,” Kurz said. “The whole experience was wonderful and it was great to see the guys. And the fact that we won and got to extend the journey was even that much sweeter.”
“A lot of us have played in a lot of places over the years with a lot of different people and the fact that we made the commitment to come back together and play with our college friends, it’s a great reflection on the program. And the fact that we won is a great testament to Coach Brey and Notre Dame basketball. It’s something we will remember for the rest of our lives.”
The team will donate a $100,000 of their winnings to charity: $40,000 to Coaches vs. Cancer, a charity that Coach Brey is tirelessly involved in and has made his players involved in.
“We first thought of doing that because cancer affects us all, whether it is a family member or a friends who suffered through it, but Coach Brey is really involved in Coaches vs. Cancer and the Notre Dame team,” Ayers said. “Coach Brey is very involved in giving back, and he made the team involved whether it would be clinics, dinners or golf outings. We got a large sum of money so we all wanted to give some back to the cause.”
Furthermore, every player will be making a donation to the charity of their choice out of their personal $50,000.
With the success of its inaugural tournament, the organizers of TBT are looking to expand it for next year. They will be pushing back the dates to accommodate some more players playing overseas, make it regional like the NCAA tournament and up the purse to, in their hopes, $1.5 million.
And the Fighting Alumni have already made plans to participate again.
“You know what, I think we definitely are,” Kurz said. “I think we had such a fun time, and we have to defend our title, right?”
“I believe after the coverage the tournament received, players who weren’t able to play this year are sitting here saying, `I’m playing next year,'” Piller said. (Ben) Hansbrough, Harangody, (Kyle) McAlarney, they all want in next year.
“I don’t think we have an option to come back and defend our title,” Piller said. “We will be there.”
Note: This year’s championship game was streamed live on ESPN3 and still can be viewed at