Notre Dame hoops at home on ACC road

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

It was home.

When 10th-ranked Notre Dame visits last-place Boston College in an Atlantic Coast Conference game Saturday afternoon, it will be unlike any previous road trip for Irish freshman forward Bonzie Colson.

In seven other visits to away arenas this season, Colson had no reference point, no previous experience in the place to draw on.

Not so Saturday.

A native of New Bedford, Mass., Colson cut his basketball chops on the once-parquet floor of Conte Forum. He knows every nook and cranny of the place that sits cozily up against the football stadium.

Colson’s father, also named Bonzie, spent nine years (2001-10) as a Boston College assistant under former coach Al Skinner. He tutored some of the best players – Troy Bell, Jared Dudley, Reggie Jackson, Craig Smith – to ever come through The Heights. Following Boston College home games, the younger Colson knew how to follow all the twists and turns of the back hallways to get to the Eagles’ locker room. He knew what door to open and snag a spare basketball before heading back to the court to shoot some hoops until it was time to head home.

Colson even held a birthday party or two with his friends on the floor.

On Saturday, Colson steps back on the Conte Forum court for the first time as a collegiate. Asked earlier this week about what his expected feelings might be being back in a gym that holds so many memories, Colson rattled off the athlete’s standard response about taking it one game at a time and about focusing on getting another road win.

Eventually, he just couldn’t hold back. Thinking about being back at Boston College, Colson offered a smile that said it all – this one means a lot.

“It was a great time there,” he said. “It’s something that’s going to be a special moment for me.”

And for two of his Irish teammates. Fellow Massachusetts natives Zach Auguste (Marlborough) and Pat Connaughton (Arlington) also return to play in front of the home folks. Many home folks. When Notre Dame visited Boston last January in its first tour of ACC road duty, Connaughton’s massive extended family needed in the neighborhood of 400 tickets. Irish coach Mike Brey guessed Thursday that they’ll need close to 500 for Connaughton’s final trip back. Auguste also is expected to have a strong following. And Colson was in the process this week of securing a dozen or so extra tickets for family members and friends.

“It’s definitely going to be a great feeling for me and Zach and Pat going back home,” Colson said. “It’s a special game for us, but we need to get this win.”

And Colson is expected to contribute to that cause. That wasn’t the case when he returned to New England for the first time with Notre Dame. During a two-game swing through Mohegan Sun Casino for the Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-off Tournament, Colson logged a pair of DNP-CDs (did not play, coach’s decision) against Massachusetts and Providence.

Brey said he kicked himself over that decision in the days and weeks that followed. But Colson didn’t play because he simply wasn’t ready. He didn’t know the team’s offensive sets. He didn’t know his role. He wasn’t comfortable on the court and the coach wasn’t comfortable with him.

That has changed. The 6-foot-5 Colson kept working, kept learning and kept battling to the point where he’s become the first big man off the bench. On Saturday, he likely will follow sixth man V.J. Beachem to the scorer’s table soon after the first media timeout.

After logging double-figure minutes in only three non-league games and three DNP-CDs the first three ACC games in January, Colson has played at least 10 minutes, including a season-high 22 in mid-January against Georgia Tech, in nine of the last 10 ACC games.

“We are going to get him in the game this time,” Brey promised. “Think about how far he’s come from Mohegan to now.”

Same could be said for how far Notre Dame has come since its last visit to Chestnut Hill. Barely over a year ago, this was an Irish team fighting to figure it all out through loss after loss after loss.

Notre Dame made history that Sunday night in Conte Forum with its first-ever league road victory. The Irish have a chance to make a little more Saturday. A win would be No. 6 on the road this season, which would be a school record.

“That’s crazy,” said sophomore guard Demetrius Jackson. “Guys just love playing on the road.”

As January was set to close, Brey talked with his team about being special. Notre Dame had just beaten North Carolina State on the road in overtime and Duke at home and was headed back out to close the month at Pittsburgh. Get that one, and Brey told the Irish they had a chance to be special. When it didn’t happen, Brey reiterated that they still had some more work to do before that special tag could stick.

Winning Saturday to run their league road record to a ridiculous 6-2 just might nudge the Irish back into special territory.

“To get to six road wins is a powerful thing,” Brey said.

Brey hasn’t focused so much on being special since Notre Dame remains in pursuit of a bigger prize, one that no one saw as a possibility when the season started. With exactly two weeks left in the regular season, the Irish (23-4, 11-3 ACC) have a chance, however slight, to chase down first-place Virginia (24-1, 12-1) and share the regular-season league championship.

“That would be an unbelievable achievement in our program’s history,” said Brey, whose team was picked seventh in preseason. “It would be as good as any achievement we’ve had in our program’s history if we did that.”

An Irish team that’s racked up 16 wins to only one loss back home almost embraces playing on the road more than being at home. They don’t care about the opposing fans who come out early to jeer them during warmups. They don’t care about the scoring runs home teams might throw at them. They simply continue to find a way to answer any and all adversity. Saturday may be no different for a Boston College team starved for some conference success.

The Irish are ready.

“Last year, we didn’t have much confidence when we went on the road,” said sophomore guard Steve Vasturia. “Now we go into arenas with a little swagger. We like going on the road. We embrace it.

“We think we should win every game.”

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

Notre Dame freshman Bonzie Colson, left, knows well what it's like to be in Conte Forum on the campus of Boston College. His father served as an Eagles assistant for nine seasons.AP Photo/GERRY BROOME

WHO: No. 10 Notre Dame (23-4 overall, 11-3 Atlantic Coast Conference) vs. Boston College (9-16, 1-12).

WHERE: Conte Forum (8,606), Chestnut Hill, Mass.

WHEN: Saturday at 4 p.m.

TV: RSN (Comcast Channel 101). The game can also be seen on the internet at ESPN3.

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM).

ONLINE: Follow every Notre Dame game with live updates from Tribune beat writer Tom Noie at twitter.com@tnoieNDI.

WORTH NOTING: Guard Olivier Hanlan scored 32 points, the third time in the last four games he’s hit for at least 30, but Boston College lost Wednesday at Florida State, 69-60. … Boston College has lost seven in a row and nine of the last 10. Its win was Jan. 25 at Georgia Tech. … The Eagles are 0-6 at home in league games. … Hanlan leads the league in scoring in overall games (18.6) and conference games (21.5). … The Eagles average 62.2 points in ACC games. … This is the third game in six days for Boston College, whose home game Sunday against Miami (Fla.) was postponed because of weather. The Eagles then lost to the Hurricanes on Monday in double overtime, 89-86. … Notre Dame has won the last four and eight of the last nine in a series it leads 14-10. The Irish jumped to a 34-9 lead before a 71-63 victory Feb. 4. Hanlan scored 28 points. Jerian Grant and Steve Vasturia each had 17 points for the Irish. … Notre Dame is 3-6 away from home in the series and last lost in Chestnut Hill on Feb. 4, 2004, 76-69. … If the ACC tournament started today, No. 14 seed Boston College would face No. 11 Wake Forest in the first round. Notre Dame would be the No. 2 seed. The Irish would play the winner of No. 7 Clemson and No. 10 North Carolina State. … Grant has scored at least 20 points in his last two games, where he also is 15-for-15 from the free throw line. … Notre Dame’s 23-4 record is the program’s best since going 25-2 in 1973-74. … Notre Dame returns to action Tuesday at home against Syracuse.

WORTH QUOTING: “Just because it’s on the road doesn’t meant that we’re going to lose. We’re playing with a lot of confidence right now.”

-Notre Dame senior guard Jerian Grant.