Matt Farrell, T.J. Gibbs help No. 9 Notre Dame rekindle offensive firepower with road win

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

NEWARK, Del. – It took a basketball road trip to one side of the country for a pair of Notre Dame guards to rediscover how good they were together all the way out on the other late last month.

When senior Matt Farrell and sophomore T.J. Gibb are attacking and aggressive and going for it and looking for their shots without worrying about much anything else, the Irish can be pretty good.

On Saturday, in an emotional avalanche of a non-conference game at a raucous Bob Carpenter Center on the campus of Delaware, Notre Dame was really good.

Because Farrell was. Because Gibbs was.

One weird week of college basketball for Notre Dame ended Saturday with something it needed. A win. Gibbs scored 21 points while Farrell scored a game-high 24 on some sizzling shooting as the No. 9 Irish (8-2) capped a stretch of six of their first 10 games away from home with a 92-68 victory.

Back in the same building where he cut his college basketball head coaching chops nearly 20 years ago, Irish coach Mike Brey decided that the time had come – really for the first time since his team won the Maui Jim Maui Invitational last month – to cut his two New Jersey guards loose. Let Farrell go and do what he does – play fast, play downhill, play aggressively. Let Gibbs do what he does – play fast, play downhill, play aggressively.

Both still slide into brief valleys where they look to be too unselfish. Too passive. Too average. But when they look to score, they’re good. And they have to score for the Irish to be good. Both set individual career highs in Maui, where Farrell took home most valuable player honors after being arguably the best player on the court in three games over three nights.

He was again on Saturday. Once he heard Brey’s plan of getting the guards going and on the offensive, Farrell and Gibbs huddled during pre-game. This was going to set up as a potentially big night for both. They had to capitalize.

They did.

“I said to him before the game, ‘no frustration,’” Farrell said. “We’re the engine. We’ve got to get going early. We’ve got to stay aggressive.”

Farrell was in a flow long before the game started. Loosening up on the basket nearest the UD student section, Farrell engaged in some back-and-forth banter with a few. That included one dressed as Santa Claus, who wanted to know if Farrell would join him and his buddies for a beverage or two afterward at a local establishment.

Farrell agreed, knowing he and his teammates would be headed for Indiana long before the guy in the red suit figured it out.

Farrell then carried a fire and a focus onto the floor that he hadn’t really shown since Maui. After seeing his 31-game streak with at least one 3-pointer snapped earlier in the week – he went 0-for-8 in Sunday’s win over St. Francis Brooklyn – Farrell was dialed in from distance. He connected on five of his seven shots from the arc. Each time he stepped into one, it looked true. Most were.

“I’m going to stay aggressive from the start,” Farrell said. “We’ve got to play hard every game and start off running right away and get guys going and get in a flow.”

Even after he fell into early foul trouble – two in the first seven-plus minutes – Farrell let little faze him. He never did pick up his third while playing all but 210 seconds.

Gibbs really got going late in a first half that saw the home team get some serious life. Delaware led by three in front of a near-capacity crowd and gained a little more confidence with each passing minute. The Irish hadn’t erupted just yet, so the Blue Hens had to figure they had a chance.

Gibbs squelched any of those thoughts by going on a nice run. He scored 12 of his 14 first-half points over the final 7:15. His 3 from the corner stretched the Irish halftime advantage to 11. While everyone prepped to hustle to the locker room at the horn, Gibbs took a second to strike a flex pose near midcourt.

He was feeling that good about his game.

Gibbs finished with 21 points, including four 3-pointers.

“It was good to get back to doing us again,” Gibbs said. “Get back to playing Notre Dame basketball. There were games after Maui that we didn’t play how we play.

“It was key getting back to doing what we do.”

A return trip

This was a tough night for Brey, and not because he was fighting a cold that left his voice weak and hoarse.

Teams from power leagues like the Atlantic Coast Conference just don’t visit Colonial Athletic Association gyms. Almost never. But Brey agreed to the game to help out former Irish point guard/assistant coach Martin Ingelsby, now in his second season as Delaware head coach. Brey, who coached UD for five years, was greeted by the fans in the sections behind the Irish bench with a semi-standing ovation when he walked out just before the tip. He shot the group two thumbs up, but really wasn’t feeling it.

It was a draining week leading into this one. Seeing the Blue Hens refuse to fold, even when the Irish lead ballooned to 26, didn’t help. The Irish trialed for all of 3:36, but the way the week had gone, it felt double. Triple.

“I’m not sure if I ever want to do this again,” Brey said. “That was kind of different emotionally, coming back here, playing against a guy love, competing against him.

“But it was really neat to be back. It’s been kind of cool being back here.”

Not at first. At least, for the first 10 minutes when the Blue Hens and their fans believed. The body language on the Irish bench said, uh-oh. Maybe Ball State all over again.

“I thought that this was the worst idea I’ve ever come up with,” he said. “They bring me back and set me up.”

In some ways, it was a win for both sides.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever been so proud of a team losing by 24 points,” Ingelsby said. “We went toe-to-toe with them for about 16 minutes of the first half.

“Our team really believed. We competed. We went for it. I love our group.”

He sounded an awful lot like Brey. But when the two met Friday between practice sessions, it wasn’t the Brey that Ingelsby remembered. As a coach. As a boss. As a friend.

“He’s the self-proclaimed ‘loosest coach in America,’ and he was not very loose,’” Ingelsby said. “I was maybe looser than he was. So grateful for him to bring Notre Dame here.”

Back in the First State to coach a game for the first time since leaving the program for Notre Dame in 2000, Brey moved within four wins of becoming the winningest coach in Irish history. Delaware falls to 4-6 this season and 0-33 all-time against ranked opponents. Saturday was the first time that an ACC team had visited Carpenter Center. Notre Dame also is the highest-ranked opponent to ever visit Newark.

Since going for 92 points on Nov. 21 in a 39-point victory over LSU, Notre Dame averaged 69.5 in its last four - two of those losses. That it finished with 92 was a big step to take this week into final exams. Notre Dame finally made it look easy on offense. The Irish shot 56.9 percent from the field – 62.5 percent in the second half – and 56.5 percent from 3.

“We shot it well,” Brey said. “We haven’t shot it great since we’ve been back from Maui. Maybe we’re breaking the ice again and shooting the ball well.”

The weird week started Sunday for Notre Dame with a home victory over St. Francis Brooklyn, a game that saw Brey and Bonzie Colson both get ejected in the second half. The weirdness continued Tuesday when Ball State won in Purcell Pavilion on a buzzer beater.

Delaware makes a return trip to Notre Dame next season. By then the newness, and the uniqueness will have worn off and will be just another game on each team’s schedule.

No chance.

No. 9 NOTRE DAME 92, DELAWARE 68

At Newark, Del.

NOTRE DAME (92): Martinas Geben 3-4 2-3 8, Bonzie Colson 8-12 2-2 19, Matt Farrell 8-13 3-3 24, Rex Pflueger 4-9 1-1 10, T.J. Gibbs 6-12 5-5 21, Elijah Burns 0-0 0-0 0, Matt Gregory 0-0 0-0 0, John Mooney 0-1 0-0 0, Austin Torres 1-1 0-0 2, Nik Djogo 1-2 0-0 3, D.J. Harvey 2-4 0-0 5. Totals 33-58 13-14 92.

DELAWARE (68): Chyree Walker 4-10 0-0 8, Eric Carter 2-8 0-0 4, Anthony Mosley 1-3 0-0 2, Kevin Anderson 7-15 6-7 23, Ryan Daly 5-14 3-6 15, Skye Johnson 1-3 0-0 2, Ryan Allen 5-11 0-0 14. Totals 25-64 9-13 68.

Halftime--Notre Dame 38-27. 3-Point Goals--Notre Dame 13-23 (Farrell 5-7, Gibbs 4-7, Harvey 1-1, Pflueger 1-2, Colson 1-2, Djogo 1-2, Geben 0-1, Mooney 0-1), Delaware 9-22 (Allen 4-8, Anderson 3-7, Daly 2-5, Walker 0-2). Fouled Out--None. Rebounds--Notre Dame 35 (Geben, Colson 12), Delaware 29 (Carter 9). Assists--Notre Dame 14 (Farrell 7), Delaware 16 (Anderson 7). Total Fouls--Notre Dame 14, Delaware 9. A--4,737 (5,000).