Noie: Bonzie Colson returns in winning Senior Night that finally felt right for Notre Dame

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – They took care of the cheers and the tears associated with Senior Night before tip, and then whacked the worst team in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Power forward Bonzie Colson was back Wednesday doing what Bonzie Colson does for Notre Dame. It was a night when all finally was right in the Irish basketball universe, one that ended with a 73-56 victory over Pittsburgh at Purcell Pavilion.

No more veteran guys in street clothes on the bench nursing injuries. No more mix-and-match and sometimes grab-bag rotation looks. No more struggles to score (OK, maybe just a little) or defend (ditto) or play or believe.

“It felt right,” said senior guard Matt Farrell. “It felt normal.”

Wednesday was what this league season could have been – heck, what March still might be – for Notre Dame (18-12; 8-9 ACC) had it not lost its best scorer and rebounder for two months. Conference contests often were frustrating forays for the Irish. Not this one. This one was fun, one where any drama in terms of the outcome was taken care of early.

“Crazy,” said senior power forward Martinas Geben in having all the right pieces in all the right places. “It’s been so long that we’re not used to playing with one another. We’re going to get it tuned up.”

Back after missing the previous 15 games with injury, Colson finished with 12 points and nine rebounds in 21 minutes.

"We're not done yet," Colson told the crowd afterward. "We're going to keep getting better."

It was win No. 100 — a school record and counting — for Colson and his fellow seniors. It was win No. 400 — a school record and counting — for coach Mike Brey in his 18-year tenure.

“That’s amazing, that really is,” Brey said. “I’m honored, man. Took a lot longer to get to 400 than I thought. That January set me back.

“We’ve had good runs and good players.”

A special night couldn’t have been scripted any better. Colson grabbed the rebound on the first Irish defensive possession, then went diving to the floor tracking down a loose ball their first trip down on offense.

“That was awesome,” Brey said. “He was all over the floor. Competing is an addiction for him.”

Colson connected on his first shot. Then his second. And a third. He also grabbed three rebounds, all before the game was four minutes old. So much for rust. Not with that guy. THE guy. He had eight points and five rebounds not even five minutes in before taking a break. For all of about three minutes.

“I felt good,” he said. “I was just trying to play the best I can and be healthy at the same time.”

The plan was to proceed with caution with Colson, who suffered a broken foot in practice on Dec. 29. Notre Dame went 6-9 without him. Colson returned to five-on-five practice this week.

And when Colson was good Monday, then really good again Tuesday, any thought of going the safe route basically went out the window. Brey had every intention of playing Colson 20 minutes against a team that went winless in league play.

“These two practices we had really helped me get into a rhythm to give me confidence to go out there and play the game,” Colson said.

For the first time since the last time Colson appeared in a game before Wednesday, the Irish started their go-to lineup — the one that started the season’s first 14 games. With Colson in there. All was right again. For the first time in a long time.

A season that featured so many sputters at home in league play ended on a good note for Notre Dame, which wrapped up ACC play 5-4 at home. Had it won at least two of those home games — losses to Louisville, Miami (Fla.), North Carolina and Virginia Tech — it might not have had to sweat Selection Sunday. Notre Dame remains in the mix to earn a bid to a fourth-straight post-season, but with some drama.

Stay tuned.

There have been three certainties in league play this season — No. 1 Virginia would win nearly every game, a whole bunch of other teams would be muddled in the middle and Pittsburgh (8-23; 0-18) would lose. At home. On the road.

Wednesday, it wasn’t so much a question if Notre Dame could keep its late-season surge going by winning for the fifth time in the last seven games. It was a question of how much the Irish would win by against a Panther team that’s just not very good.

Notre Dame’s advantage hit double digits when Farrell connected on a 3 to make it 24-13. And when T.J. Gibbs followed with a 3, it was 27-13. Gibbs hit again from distance to make it 30-13. In a way, that was a win. Pittsburgh managed only seven points in the first half of Saturday’s home loss to Virginia.

Notre Dame’s big first-half burst topped out at 20-2, including 18 straight. The lead climbed to 19 in the first half. The Irish were really good, but the Panthers are also just that bad. Each time it seemed Kevin Stallings would call a play from the sideline, he’d watch his team run the opposite way it was supposed to go.

The Irish led by 16 at half, their largest lead at the break in a home league game this season. From a real-time sense, it was one of the quickest first halves of the season, played in less than 40 minutes. One team wanted to be there, the other, not so much. The Irish saw their energy and execution levels dip in the second half, but it’s hard to stay that sharp against an opponent that … challenged.

Barely five minutes into the second half, Brey already was calling out “Five!” from the sideline. That meant running clock and making at least five passes before looking for a shot – a play usually reserved for non-league laughers in November.

The Irish led by as many as 22 and trailed for all of 17 seconds.

It was a family affair for the Colsons. His sister, Sydni, sang the national anthem as part of Senior Night. She crushed it, just like her big brother did for so many nights the last four seasons.

Colson swept in with a massive hug afterward.

“A special moment,” Colson said.

Notre Dame also thanked Geben for his career by playing the national anthem of his native Lithuania.

“That was awesome, really special,” Geben said. “Just a nice tribute to me as a person and where I come from. It really meant a lot. Lithuaina is a big part of me and who I am.”

It was a little dusty in the building after both moments, so much so that Irish associated coach Rod Balanis looked to be wiping tears from his eyes. He wasn't alone.


At Purcell Pavilion

PITTSBURGH (8-23): Brown 5-9 0-0 10, Milligan 1-7 0-0 2, Davis 1-5 0-0 3, Stewart 2-10 3-3 7, Stevenson 4-7 1-2 10, Chukwuka 0-0 0-0 0, Carr 2-9 0-0 4, Wilson-Frame 7-19 1-1 20. Totals 22-66 5-6 56.

NOTRE DAME (18-12): Geben 3-8 3-4 9, Colson 6-10 0-0 12, Pflueger 1-5 0-0 3, Farrell 5-12 2-2 14, Gibbs 4-13 2-2 14, Gregory 0-4 0-0 0, Mooney 3-6 2-3 8, Torres 3-3 0-3 6, Burns 2-2 1-1 5, Djogo 1-4 0-0 2, Nelligan 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 28-67 10-15 73.

Halftime--Notre Dame 39-23. 3-Point Goals--Pittsburgh 7-30 (Wilson-Frame 5-13, Stevenson 1-1, Davis 1-4, Milligan 0-3, Carr 0-4, Stewart 0-5), Notre Dame 7-24 (Gibbs 4-9, Farrell 2-5, Pflueger 1-3, Mooney 0-1, Djogo 0-2, Gregory 0-2, Colson 0-2). Fouled Out--Stevenson. Rebounds--Pittsburgh 32 (Brown 8), Notre Dame 50 (Geben 13). Assists--Pittsburgh 11 (Carr 5), Notre Dame 17 (Pflueger 4). Total Fouls--Pittsburgh 14, Notre Dame 7. A--9,007 (9,149).

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Notre Dame's Bonzie Colson (35) dives for a loose ball in front of Pittsburgh's Terrell Brown (21) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018, in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Robert Franklin)