Underclassmen point way for No. 12 Notre Dame road win

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – A freshman in name only at this point in his first college basketball season, Notre Dame power forward Bonzie Colson has been through too much and done too much to let another wild Atlantic Coast Conference road atmosphere make him all goofy.

Same goes for the No. 12 Notre Dame men’s basketball team, which has answered road challenge after road challenge this season.

Wednesday was no exception. In fact, it may have been the biggest and boldest statement the Irish have made along their ACC away odyssey.

Able to sidestep losing a second straight game for the first time this season, Notre Dame received massive efforts from Colson and sophomore guard Demetrius Jackson to wrestle control from No. 16 Louisville and leave KFC Yum! Center – but not town, at least not right away – with a 71-59 victory.

The Irish have two wins in three trips to the NBA-type building that sits downtown on the banks of the Ohio River. Both of those have come after league losses the previous game,

“I’m really proud of my team to come into this atmosphere and beat an NCAA tournament team,” said coach Mike Brey. “I was a little concerned how sharp we would be. We haven’t played in eight days.

“We responded great.”

This was a game that was there for the taking in the second half. And Notre Dame took it, even after letting momentum get away by allowing an 11-point halftime lead to dissolve in the first three-plus minutes. But the Irish had plenty of answers, and not from the usual guys.

“Everybody just went for it,” Jackson said.

The win bumped Notre Dame’s record to 25-5, 13-4 in the ACC. It also clinched a No. 3 seed in next week’s ACC tournament and likely guarantees that the Irish stay relatively close to home (Columbus, Ohio?) for the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament.

Notre Dame finishes its second ACC road season with a school record seven wins against two losses. The Irish went 1-8 away from home last season.

“We love winning on the road,” Colson said.

“We’re definitely confident playing on the road,” said senior guard Jerian Grant. “We played with confidence the whole game.”

Again coming off the bench and again proving that his value has rocketed to a point where Brey cannot afford to take him out, Colson connected on all seven of his shots from the field for a career-high 17 points in a career-best 26 minutes. For good measure, the 6-foot-5 Colson also stared down preseason All-American Montrezl Harrell and grabbed a career-high nine rebounds.

“I just keep trying to do what I do every day in practice and bring energy off the bench,” Colson said. “Anything I can do to help us win a game.”

And playing against the 6-8 Harrell?

“If they’re taller than I am, I get angry,” Colson said. “It just makes me play harder.”

Put Colson in any game situation at any time, and all he does is find ways to help his team. With a shot. A rebound. A steal. A presence. He’s not afraid. He’s not nervous. He’s not unsure. He just plays with a pure passion that’s been contagious to an Irish team that used their seven-day break away from game action to get better following last week’s home loss to Syracuse.

Back in November, he hadn’t done enough to earn a single minute in non-league games against Massachusetts and Providence. Now in March, he’s been among the most consistent players in an Irish uniform.

Colson cannot say he’s surprised. All this was almost in some way expected. By him.

“When I wasn’t playing, that just gave me more motivation to keep working hard,” Colson said. “I just had to stay positive. It’s a blessing for me to help my team win, man. We’ve just got to keep it going.”

While Colson was cooking, Jackson was just as good dusting off the skills that have made him a really good ACC guard. He scored a team-high 21 points, one shy of matching his career high. He twice delivered critical jumpers late in the second half to keep the Cardinals on their heels. When it got late in the game and all Louisville could do to try to get back into the contest was to foul, Jackson dribbled time and again up through the middle of the court, over the massive Cardinal logo at center court and refused to give up the ball.

If someone needed to make free throws, well, he was going to make them. All seven of them. If someone needed to handle the ball, well, he was going to handle it.

“I felt good from the free throw line tonight,” Jackson said. “I wanted to be able to knock them in and help our team win the game.”

How thorough an effort was it for the younger guys in blue and gold? Grant and fellow senior Pat Connaughton have carried this team for stretches this season, but on Wednesday, it was the younger guys who did more than their share of the heavy lifting.

With Colson going well and Jackson running everything and sophomore Steve Vasturia bottling up Cardinals guard Terry Rozier, Connaughton and Grant combined for one basket – a Grant left-handed drive and score with 1:16 remaining.

Of the 71 points, 52 came from Irish underclassmen.

“For them young guys to play the way they did in an environment like this, it gives us confidence that they can do it in the NCAA tournament or the ACC tournament,” Grant said. “It’s going to take us a long way.”

The “Road Dawg” Irish simply gave the Cardinals nothing to feel good about for long stretches. They answered every scoring run. They solved almost every fullcourt press. They even threw the Cardinals off-balance with some ¾-court pressure (23 extended) of their own. They played two bigs at once. They played small. They ran when it was there, burned clock when it wasn’t. And they defended.

The Irish scrapped their man defense less than three minutes in.

“We got to zone pretty quick,” Brey said. “Then we started to extend it.”

Louisville shot 37 percent from the field, 18.2 percent from 3 in a second half that saw the Cardinals get in no flow and compound that with too many quick shots.

“Our offensive philosophy was not to show them that we are a great shooting team,” said coach Rick Pitino. “We shot quick. We shot 3s on the break. It was as if we thought we were Notre Dame the way we were running our offense.

“It was very disappointing.”

Louisville’s campus closed at 2 p.m. Wednesday ahead of a winter storm that called for the area to receive as much as a foot of snow into the evening and overnight hours. By the time the game ended, Interstate 65 had been closed because of the snow. The wintry weather grounded any charter flight the Irish had hoped to catch back to Indiana. Notre Dame’s traveling party was expected to be stuck in Kentucky until early Thursday afternoon. After the quick flight home, it was back to practice for Notre Dame, which closes the regular season Saturday at home against unranked Clemson.

NOTRE DAME (25-5): Connaughton 2-7 0-0 5, Auguste 1-2 0-0 2, Jackson 6-11 7-7 21, Grant 4-10 3-6 12, Vasturia 2-4 5-5 10, Torres 1-1 0-0 2, Beachem 0-1 2-2 2, Colson 7-7 3-5 17. Totals 23-43 20-25 71.

LOUISVILLE (23-7): arrell 8-12 7-12 23, Blackshear 4-10 1-2 11, Onuaku 3-4 0-0 6, Rozier 4-15 3-4 11, Snider 2-6 0-0 6, Gill 0-2 0-0 0, Mathiang 0-0 0-0 0, Mahmoud 1-3 0-0 2, Aaron 0-0 0-0 0, Levitch 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 22-52 11-18 59.

Halftime--Notre Dame 42-31. 3-Point Goals--Notre Dame 5-16 (Jackson 2-5, Vasturia 1-2, Grant 1-3, Connaughton 1-5, Beachem 0-1), Louisville 4-17 (Snider 2-5, Blackshear 2-7, Gill 0-1, Rozier 0-4). Fouled Out--Mathiang. Rebounds--Notre Dame 26 (Colson 9), Louisville 29 (Harrell 12). Assists--Notre Dame 12 (Grant 7), Louisville 11 (Rozier 5). Total Fouls--Notre Dame 16, Louisville 18. A--21,024.

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Notre Dame freshman Bonzie Colson scores over Louisville's Montrezl Harrell during Wednesdya's game at KFC Yum! Center.AP Photo/TIMOTHY D. EASLEY