Noie: Work, not words, get it done in ACC opener for Notre Dame

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – Words within the walls of the Notre Dame locker room at halftime were about as plentiful as points had been the previous 20 minutes.

This after the Irish tied their season low of 23 halfway through the Atlantic Coast Conference opener Saturday against Georgia Tech.

But sometimes, as coach Mike Brey likes to say, his team plays the first half just to get to the second. Like, now it’s time they get going. And sometimes, as Brey likes to do, the main guys have to play like the five main guys from start to finish. Like, it’s time to ride them. Hard.

Both scenarios held true in a game that saw the Irish (11-3) shake free of the early grind, get in a groove and go 1-0 in league play for the fourth time in five seasons following a 68-59 victory at Purcell Pavilion.

All five Irish starters scored double figures led by – who else? – Bonzie Colson. The reigning ACC player of the week and preseason player of the year made his case for more of both Saturday. Colson scored a game-high 22 points and grabbed a game-high 17 rebounds, which ties his career best. There can be no off nights from senior captains in league play. And Colson was all over the place in 39 minutes. Afterward, he had the scars to show for it.

Colson carried a cut on his elbow, and another near his hand. Scratches around his forearms and blood-stained shorts. Welcome to the ACC, where he answered in his first true test – against Georgia Tech as a freshman – after getting a bloody nose.

“I’m always bleeding, somehow,” Colson said. “That’s how it is. ACC play is always tough.”

Four of the five Irish starters all logged at least 34 minutes. The bench remains an area aching to be developed. This was not the day to do that. Maybe next time. Or next. Brey went the final 12 minutes without making a substitution.

"The main dudes gotta finish the thing," he said.

Brey left the building with victory No. 393 in his 18-year Notre Dame coaching career. That tied former coach Digger Phelps, sitting in his customary baseline front-row seat, as the winningest coach in program history. The record-setter may come Wednesday at home against North Carolina State.

"That's amazing," Brey said. "I'm honored to be here that long. I would really like to get this over with, sooner than later so we can concentrate on the ACC race."

Win No. 393 wasn’t a given. Georgia Tech came to town having won two of three in the series and looked every bit the part of pushing that to three of four. The Yellow Jackets’ 1-3-1 zone and big man Ben Lammers were trouble areas for the Irish for most of the first half. Notre Dame couldn’t get in a good flow, couldn’t rebound, couldn’t get past passing the ball around the perimeter once, twice, three times while bleeding the shot clock before being forced into a high-difficulty, low-percentage shot.

Georgia Tech led by as many as seven while Notre Dame led for all of 17 seconds.

It was that ugly for the Irish.

As Brey headed into the locker room to talk adjustments, he heard from his main guys. His seniors. His captains. Colson and guard Matt Farrell were the group leaders when group leaders were required. They talked of it being a long game. Talked of being better in the second half. Talked of staying patient. Talked of a run eventually arriving. Talked of having 20 minutes remaining to do what the Irish do.

Notre Dame then did what it does.

Again.

“Just stay composed,” Colson said. “Our leadership usually holds the fort and we let everybody know that we’re OK.”

Usually, the earlier the Irish are back from the locker room to prepare for the second half, the shorter the halftime speech. On Saturday, there was eternity — just under seven minutes remaining — when Notre Dame wandered back out and started shooting around.

“We didn’t spend a lot of time in there,” said guard Rex Pflueger. “That’s the crazy thing. We almost have a telepathy going on with our team where someone can say something and there’s no other conversation.

“We take it. We listen to it and we really put it into our game plan.”

The telepathy Saturday was simple – be better.

“We just said, 'Hey, let’s get going,'” Pflueger said. “Let’s focus in, make the right plays and that really sits with us.”

The Irish then moved the ball. They scored 16 points in less than seven minutes. They guarded. And, unlike some close contests of the non-conference past, they rebounded. They looked a different team. More together. More focused.

“That’s sure the half you want to play well if you have to pick one,” Brey said. “I’ll take it. I’ll keep trying to help us in the first half, but I don’t want to screw up the second half.”

Colson and fellow senior power forward Martinas Geben made it a point to get seemingly every rebound. They ignored any idea of Lammers, a first team all-league pick.

After the first 20 minutes, the rebounds were 18-18. After 40, it was Notre Dame 45, Georgia Tech 34. Playing zone helped the Irish. It kept them around the basket. It also helped that Geben, who grabbed five rebounds overall and scored 10 of his 12 points in in the second half, took his matchup with Lammers personally.

Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner believes his guy’s a first-round NBA draft pick in June. But it was Geben who played like the guy on the radar of the seven NBA scouts seated in the second row.

“It’s always a personal challenge to slow down one of the better players, one of the better big men on the opposing team,” Geben said. “I’m glad I was able to execute it and help us win.”

Nobody around Notre Dame – not Brey, not the players – would say that Saturday was a breeze. But when the scores around the league rolled in by early evening on the first full day of ACC play, no home team had won as easily, on a day that didn’t start the part, as Notre Dame.

“I saw the scores; league play, man,” Brey said. “Just throw it all out. Any league win you appreciate. It’s going to be a good New Year’s Eve, let me put it that way, ‘cause we’re 1-0 in league play.”

One down, 17 to go.

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

Twitter: @tnoieNDI

Notre Dame's Bonzie Colson (35) celebrates after his team went on a big run during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Georgia Tech, Saturday, Dec. 30, 2017, in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Robert Franklin)

NOTRE DAME 68, GEORGIA TECH 59

At South Bend

GEORGIA TECH (6-7): Abdoulaye Gueye 1-3 0-2 2, Ben Lammers 5-18 1-3 11, Josh Okogie 5-14 2-4 16, Brandon Alston 1-4 2-4 4, Jose Alvarado 4-8 1-2 11, Evan Cole 0-0 0-0 0, Tadric Jackson 7-13 1-3 15. Totals 23-60 7-18 59.

NOTRE DAME (11-3): Bonzie Colson 8-21 6-6 22, Martinas Geben 5-8 2-2 12, TJ Gibbs 3-8 2-2 10, Rex Pflueger 3-6 3-4 11, Matt Farrell 3-12 1-2 10, John Mooney 1-3 0-0 2, Elijah Burns 0-0 0-0 0, Nikola Djogo 0-2 1-2 1, DJ Harvey 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 23-60 15-18 68.

Halftime--Georgia Tech 28-23. 3-Point Goals--Georgia Tech 6-20 (Okogie 4-9, Alvarado 2-6, Alston 0-1, Lammers 0-1, Jackson 0-3), Notre Dame 7-20 (Farrell 3-8, Gibbs 2-4, Pflueger 2-4, Djogo 0-1, Colson 0-1, Mooney 0-2). Fouled Out--None. Rebounds--Georgia Tech 33 (Lammers 12), Notre Dame 42 (Colson 17). Assists--Georgia Tech 10 (Alston 4), Notre Dame 15 (Pflueger 6). Total Fouls--Georgia Tech 14, Notre Dame 14. A--8,441 (9,149).