Notre Dame men ride small lineup to big Atlantic Coast Conference basketball win

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Doubt settled over a college basketball program in desperate need of an Atlantic Coast Conference win like a frustrating fog.

It seemingly wasn't going to clear anytime soon.

For the better part of nearly 26 minutes during Tuesday's critical conference contest against Wake Forest, the key Notre Dame contributors wondered while they worked – could they snap a steak that saw them lose four in a row and five of six?

Just when it looked like nothing would go right for unranked Notre Dame, everything did. Determination dominated doubt.

And the team's “Big Four” of senior captains V.J. Beachem and Steve Vasturia, junior captain Bonzie Colson and junior point guard Matt Farrell refused to let this team fall again.

All four made big shots at big moments as the Irish finally found something with a smaller lineup. That produced sizzling second-half shooting and 52 points en route to an 88-81 victory at Purcell Pavilion.

It was a conference season high for points for the Irish.

“Man, we needed that!” said an exhausted coach Mike Brey, who shed his suit coat about halfway through the game, then left the post-game locker room with his white dress shirt untucked. “We needed that, baby! Woo!”

Notre Dame is 18-7, 7-5 and in sixth place in the ACC. Wake Forest fell to 14-10, 5-7.

“It's a great win for us,” Beachem said. “We just had that belief tonight. You could really see it.”

Beachem, Colson, Farrell and Vasturia combined for 45 points in a second half that saw the Irish shoot 55.6 percent from the field, 64.3 percent from 3. Able to absorb minimal damage in the rebounding department (they finished minus 8), the Irish got enough stops at key moments. That helped them get to the other end and go 9-of-14 from 3 in the second half.

“We haven't been clicking (so) it was nice to put some numbers up on the board tonight,” Farrell said. “We've got to figure out how to start out like that.”

The Irish also blocked a season-high 12 shots. Colson (5) and Beachem (4) set career highs for blocks. Sophomore Rex Pflueger, who made his first start of the season, tied his career best with three.

Not bad for a small lineup.

“Rejecting stuff, huh?” Brey said. “How about that?”

It wasn't all fun and games early for Notre Dame, which trailed by as many as nine and had trouble getting much going. It reached a point in the second half where Farrell had seen enough.

From the Irish.

From the quiet crowd.

During a stoppage with under 14 minutes to go and the Irish down two, Farrell stood by the sideline and waved his arms toward the crowd asking them to get loud. Brey did the same in front of the Irish bench.

“We played uptight,” Brey said. “We were a little frustrated.”

Less than two minutes later, another Colson 3 gave the Irish a lead. Everything seemed to flow the rest of the way. These were the Irish that had spent the better part of two months in the national rankings, and the guys who had jumped to a 5-0 league start. They had life. A lot of it.

“We played with more energy and passion in the second half,” Farrell said. “Energy and effort is something that needs to be there every day.”

Colson delivered the night's biggest effort. Working against sophomore power forward John Collins, who received a heavy consideration for league player of the week honors with his recent run of six (now seven) straight 20-plus scoring games, Colson finished with a season-high 27 points and a game-high 16 rebounds as the lone big to play meaningful minutes.

Can he do it again and again and again as February unfolds?

“If God blesses me with that,” Colson said. “But hey, just gotta keep working my tail off, keep accepting challenges and keep doing what I can do.”

Collins led the Demon Deacons with 24 points and 14 rebounds.

While his four main guys played like four main guys, Brey worked as hard as he has in years on the sideline. He tried to stay loose all day, even participating in the traditional halfcourt shooting contest during shoot-around. He later joked with his players to keep them loose, even if his insides were churning like he had just put away some bad pizza.

“I was tied up inside in knots, man” Brey said. “But I faked it like a son of a gun. Gotten really good at it.”

Ever the confidence-giver, he did his best to pull his guys along for the first 26 minutes, when nothing seemed to go right. He constantly called out to the Irish — "We're all right!" "Keep playing!" "Be bigger!" "Come on!"

It had been a trying 72 hours that saw Notre Dame lose by seven to North Carolina on Super Bowl Sunday in Greensboro. That one was a high-energy, NCAA Tournament-atmosphere type of game where the Irish had invested a whole lot with nothing to show for it.

Turning it around quickly was not going to be easy. It wasn't.

“I'm dead,” Brey said. “We're worn out.”

The Irish found their way through, and may have found fresh life to a season that had been stuck too long in neutral.

“Lose a couple games and you think the whole world is going to end,” Farrell said. “We gotta get back on track.”

This one helped. Big time.

NOTRE DAME 88, WAKE FOREST 81

At Purcell Pavilion

WAKE FOREST (14-10): Dinos Mitoglou 2-6 1-2 5, John Collins 9-20 6-8 24, Austin Arians 4-8 0-0 10, Keyshawn Woods 6-12 1-1 16, Bryant Crawford 6-14 4-5 19, Doral Moore 1-2 0-0 2, Mitchell Wilbekin 0-5 5-5 5, Brandon Childress 0-3 0-0 0. Totals 28-70 17-21 81.

 NOTRE DAME (18-7): V.J. Beachem 7-14 0-0 19, Bonzie Colson 10-16 5-7 27, Rex Pflueger 1-4 0-0 2, Steve Vasturia 4-7 6-7 17, Matt Farrell 6-11 1-2 16, Austin Torres 0-1 0-0 0, Martinas Geben 0-1 0-0 0, Matt Ryan 0-0 0-0 0, T.J. Gibbs 1-5 5-5 7. Totals 29-59 17-21 88.

Halftime--Wake Forest 41-36. 3-Point Goals--Wake Forest 8-21 (Woods 3-5, Crawford 3-6, Arians 2-6, Childress 0-1, Wilbekin 0-3), Notre Dame 13-27 (Beachem 5-12, Vasturia 3-5, Farrell 3-5, Colson 2-2, Pflueger 0-1, Gibbs 0-2). Fouled Out--None. Rebounds--Wake Forest 38 (Collins 14), Notre Dame 31 (Colson 16). Assists--Wake Forest 17 (Wilbekin, Crawford 5), Notre Dame 17 (Farrell 6). Total Fouls--Wake Forest 18, Notre Dame 16.

tnoie@ndinsider.com

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@tnoieNDI

Notre Dame’s Rex Pflueger (0) hehs helped up by his teammates Steve Vasturia (32), V.J. Beachem (3) and Matt Farrell (5) during Tuesday's win over Wake Forest. (SBT Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ)