Back to his old self, Bonzie Colson carries Notre Dame to basketball win

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – A flexing preseason All-American means a focused preseason All-American, which often means a good night for the Notre Dame men’s basketball team.

Power forward Bonzie Colson was flexing his muscles all of Tuesday. Long before tip-off in a rare home game, he was doing it in the off-campus apartment he shares with teammate Matt Farrell. He was doing it at pre-game meal. In the locker room. On the court.

Especially on the court, where all of that flexing and focus was really needed against … Dartmouth.

Colson scored a career-high 37 points and added 11 rebounds for his 30th double double as Notre Dame finally found something to feel really good about at home after losing three of its last five overall. Farrell added 22 points and six assists as the Irish improved to 9-3 with a 97-87 victory.

The two seniors made sure to get it all back on track. Farrell knew Colson was in line for a big night. The flexing early and often and again and again gave it away.

“When I see (the flexing), I know he’s going and we need that all the time,” Farrell said. “We need his emotion; we need his energy. That gets the team going.”

Coming clear of Saturday’s collapse against Indiana, which ended in an 80-77 overtime loss down in Indianapolis, Colson knew it was time to get back to his attacking, aggressive, all-out self sooner than later. Then he did.

“Just wanted to stay in character,” Colson said. “Everybody’s on me to bring that fire, that junkyard dog, that edge and I just tried to do it today. It was a bounce-back game, so I wanted to bring everything.”

With the Irish seemingly hanging by a thread late in the second half after their 16-point lead had been shaved to three, Colson delivered a 3-pointer to double the advantage. On the ensuing possession, he mustered one of his three steals and barreled back the other way for a dunk. That bucket gave him a career-high 35 points. His previous personal best was 33 against Florida State back in February.

With his high school coach, Michael Hart, in attendance, Colson was rolling in all areas. For the first time this season, he made the game look easy, made it look like he did his sophomore and junior seasons. He finished 15-of-21 from the field, and also got his perimeter shot going. Shooting only 23.1 percent (6-of-26) from 3 coming in, Colson connected on three of his five from the arc.

Able to get a lot of shots up Monday, Colson felt more in a rhythm with it. With everything.

“That helped me on my flow and getting confident on that end,” Colson said. “Great things take time, you know. That’s something you can’t overthink.”

Colson just played with a better pace and far more poise than really at any other time this season. And for the first time, the preseason Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year played like one. Played like he’s in line for his first league player of the week honor the day after Christmas. Played like he’s ready to carry this team back toward national relevance.

Played like, well, an animal.

“He’s just a dog,” said junior Rex Pflueger, who returned from a long offensive day in Indianapolis with 13 points and six rebounds. “He doesn’t like losing, like all of us. He took to heart.”

All 37 of Colson’s points were needed after the Irish seemingly forgot how to guard. So good earlier in the year on the defensive end, Notre Dame struggled to do anything well on that end as the Big Green delivered big from the perimeter. Dartmouth shot 50.8 percent from the field for the game, connected on a ridiculous 15-of-32 from 3-point range and threatened to make it seriously interesting after Notre Dame’s efficient, free-wheeling offense had built a 16-point lead with 12:15 remaining.

Dartmouth put some serious game pressure on the Irish, but there was only one problem. It had no answer for No. 35 in gold.

“He’ll kill himself making sure his team doesn’t lose,” said Irish coach Mike Brey.

The mood around this Irish program was not expected to be pleasant during the two days they had back in practice, but you’d hardly know it. There were no lineup changes; no rotation switches. Notre Dame got after it in the two workouts since Saturday’s loss. Word has it that Brey added a category for the team’s managers to chart as the practices – even the normal game day shoot-around – featured heavy doses of five-on-five.

Brey instructed his helpers to chart …. smiles.

From his players. On the practice court. Apparently, Colson led all Irish in that department.

“We’ve been really serious in this slump,” Pflueger said. “Coach has to remind us that this a game and we play it that we love it. This is something we want to do and we might as well have fun with it.”

Why chart smiles? Brey’s already worked overtime trying to get his core guys – Colson and Farrell and Pflueger and sophomore T.J. Gibbs – to not take everything so seriously all the time. Thus, the smile chart category, which goes along the same line as the team’s shooting shirts that read “Rain Coats” and “Power Claps.”

The point? Have fun, move on from any negativity and just play. That’s been a struggle for the core. They want success this season badly. Maybe too much so.

“We have some really high-strung guys,” Brey said. “Especially the four of them. I wouldn’t want it any other way ‘cause it’s a great edge about those guys.”

But…

“It has been a negative sometimes.”

The 87 points allowed were a season high for the Irish. Afterward, an almost-resigned Brey talked of his team just having to go and outscore other teams, particularly in league play, in their building. Dartmouth scored 48 points and shot 51.4 percent in a second half where the Irish were as different on that end as they’ve been all year.

Having Dartmouth hang nearly 90 on Notre Dame wasn’t expected. Neither was Brey having to ride his starts hard. Like four of them logging at least 37 minutes hard. Farrell and Pflueger each played all but 60 seconds; Colson and Gibbs each went 37. Against an Ivy League school. At home. In December.

Brey would have liked to go deeper with his bench – nine guys did see action – but his dissatisfaction with the lack of interior defense forced him to sit everyone but the starters for all but five minutes in the second half.

Why didn’t any of the Irish reserve bigs play? Didn’t guard. Why didn’t freshman D.J. Harvey, who started the second half in place of Martinas Geben, not get more run? Didn’t guard.

Notre Dame’s bench was outscored 32-3.

“Our starters had to win the game for us tonight,” said Brey, who moved within three of the winningest coach in program history. “It had all the signs of, you’re not escaping (against Dartmouth?!?) unless those guys ride the whole second half out, which they pretty much did.”

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

Twitter: @tnoieNDI

Notre Dame’s Bonzie Colson (35) dunks Tuesday during the Dartmouth game at Purcell Pavilion. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA

NOTRE DAME 97, DARTMOUTH 87

At Purcell Pavilion

DARTMOUTH (3-6): Will Emery 4-7 4-6 12, Taylor Johnson 2-5 0-0 4, Brendan Barry 3-9 2-2 10, Miles Wright 5-12 0-0 15, Aaryn Rai 5-11 0-0 14, Andrease Jackson 3-4 0-0 7, Chris Knight 7-9 0-0 14, James Foye 0-2 2-2 2, isaac Letoa 0-1 0-0 0, Ian Sistare 3-3 0-0 9. Totals 32-63 8-10 87.

 NOTRE DAME (9-3): Bonzie Colson 15-21 4-5 37, Martinas Geben 3-3 7-8 13, T.J. Gibbs 2-8 4-4 9, Matt Farrell 8-13 2-3 22, Rex Pflueger 5-9 3-3 13, John Mooney 0-0 0-0 0, Elijah Burns 0-0 0-0 0, Nik Djogo 0-0 0-0 0, D.J. Harvey 1-5 1-1 3. Totals 34-59 21-24 97.

Halftime--Notre Dame 46-39. 3-Point Goals--Dartmouth 15-32 (Wright 5-9, Rai 4-6, Sistare 3-3, Barry 2-7, Jackson 1-2, Foye 0-2, Johnson 0-3), Notre Dame 8-20 (Farrell 4-6, Colson 3-5, Gibbs 1-4, Pflueger 0-2, Harvey 0-3). Fouled Out--None. Rebounds--Dartmouth 24 (Emery, Barry 5), Notre Dame 35 (Colson 11). Assists--Dartmouth 24 (Barry 12), Notre Dame 15 (Farrell 6). Total Fouls--Dartmouth 20, Notre Dame 10. A--6,837 (9,149).