Fitting end to injury-filled season for Notre Dame as Penn State advances in NIT

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — With the clock stopped for a foul and all hope of contorting an ugly offensive afternoon into a miracle finish, Bonzie Colson took the icepack off his aching left foot, strode right past coach Mike Brey and checked himself into the game.

It was a fitting end in so many ways — those last 35.2 seconds Saturday of fourth-seeded Penn State’s 73-63 ousting of top-seeded Notre Dame from the consolation dance at Purcell Pavilion and securing its ticket for an NIT quarterfinal matchup next week.

Fitting above all else, because this was never really about turning an NIT run into a mission of showing the NCAA Tournament selection committee that the Irish (21-15) were better than team No. 69 in its 68-team thought process.

It was about legacy. And about what Colson and the other three Irish seniors leave behind that will help shape a 2018-19 Irish team saturated with promise and teeming with new faces — five freshmen and 7-foot UConn transfer Juwan Durham.

One of the freshman, top 100 guard Dane Goodwin, was among the crowd of 4,023 who saw the Nittany Lions (23-13) lead from start to finish and who watched the preseason All-America forward Colson hobble off late in the third quarter after scoring 16 points with nine rebounds.

Yes, third quarter. The NIT is experimenting with quarters instead of halves, a wider free throw lane and deeper 3-point arc. None of that was as pronounced Saturday as Penn State’s old-fashioned defense.

Notre Dame went the first five minutes of the game without a field goal, shot 38.3 percent from the field and a season-low 18.2 percent from 3 (4-of-22). ND’s first trey, in fact, didn’t come until the second half, only the 10th time in the 605 games of Brey Era that has happened.

“At Notre Dame on St. Patrick’s Day, you figured everything would be going against us,” said Penn State coach Patrick Chambers an Irish Catholic himself and youngest of 12 children.

“These guys came out ready to play. We did some really good things on the defensive end. That goes back to our identity.”

Notre Dame’s identity, at least from an X’s and O’s standpoint, was muddled for much of the season by key injuries. It was the response to those that Brey will most remember.

“This senior class and probably this team will have a special spot in my heart,” Brey said, “even though we didn’t go to the NCAA Tournament, we didn’t win the NIT, we didn’t get to the ACC Championship Game.”

But they never buckled, either.

“We’ve taken a lot of punches,” offered senior guard Matt Farrell, who labored for nine points with six turnovers in his final game in an Irish uniform. “We’ve been through a lot. Coach Brey says he’s never had a group like this that’s been through this much.

“I think it’s powerful stuff that everybody in this room has each other’s back. Had it all year. Has been a staple of this program.”

Colson was no more than a bystander in those final 35.2 seconds, although there was a potential rebound that nearly caromed his way that he had to talk himself out of lunging for.

“I just wanted to be out there. This place means a lot to me,” Colson said moments before scurrying off for an X-ray on the very foot that fractured in early January and sidelined him for a 15-game stretch.

“This is more than a game. This is brotherhood.”

Brey had to talk Colson into staying on the bench earlier in the fourth quarter when Penn State answered a 7-0 Irish run to start the fourth quarter repeatedly and emphatically. That pulled Notre Dame to within 50-43, the closest it would get the rest of the way.

“I was just trying to calm him down and I was just trying to talk about his future,” Brey said of the stay-on-the-bench debate.

Colson said the pain in his left foot started when he landed awkwardly late in the third quarter. The preseason All-America forward said it was the first time he had experienced any discomfort since returning from the surgically repaired injury.

“I was praying on the bench that I didn’t break it again,” he said. “Now we just have to figure out what it is, deal with it and go from there.”

Penn State has its adversity too. The Nittany Lions were without 6-9 sophomore forward Mike Watkins, the team’s leading rebounder and nation’s second-most accurate shooter (.685).

Tony Carr led four Penn State scorers in double figures with 24 points. Sophomore T.J. Gibbs paced the Irish with 17. Senior Martinas Geben added 10.

“We just couldn’t get into any offensive rhythm,” Brey said. “I think Penn State is the one to blame on that or give credit to.

“They’ve got great length and size. They switch a lot of stuff with athletic guys. I think the size of their perimeter players really gave us problems, especially Matt (Farrell).”

Penn State moves on to take on the winner of Sunday’s game between No. 3 3 seed Oregon (23-12) and No. 2 2 seed Marquette (20-13). Notre Dame moves on to pondering the future.

“I talked about that a little bit and I’ve thought about it a lot the last month,” Brey said of next year’s team. “When you’re going through a year like we’ve gone through, I do think about what’s coming.

“It’s going to be some young colts. We’re going to throw the ball up into the band as we grow this group, but I’m excited to be with them. We will come from completely off the radar, which is probably a good thing for this group.”

PENN STATE (23-13): Stevens 5-15 1-1 11, Harrar 1-3 2-2 4, Reaves 5-9 5-6 18, Garner 5-14 1-2 15, Carr 6-15 10-12 24, Moore 0-1 1-2 1, Zemgulis 0-1 0-0 0, Wheeler 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 22-58 20-25 73.

NOTRE DAME (21-15): Geben 4-6 2-3 10, Colson 5-11 5-7 16, Farrell 4-14 0-0 9, Gibbs 5-15 5-5 17, Pflueger 2-6 0-0 4, Mooney 0-2 1-2 1, Torres 3-3 0-0 6, Djogo 0-3 0-0 0. Totals 23-60 13-17 63.

Penn St. 21 29 50 73

Notre Dame 10 23 36 63

3-Point Goals_Penn St. 9-26 (Garner 4-10, Reaves 3-6, Carr 2-7, Zemgulis 0-1, Stevens 0-2), Notre Dame 4-22 (Gibbs 2-5, Colson 1-2, Farrell 1-9, Pflueger 0-1, Mooney 0-2, Djogo 0-3). Fouled Out_Gibbs. Rebounds_Penn St. 32 (Reaves 9), Notre Dame 32 (Colson 9). Assists_Penn St. 11 (Carr 4), Notre Dame 13 (Farrell, Pflueger 4). Total Fouls_Penn St. 17, Notre Dame 20. A_4,023 (9,149).

Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey, pictured here in a file photo, saw his Irish bow out of the NIT in the tourney's second round on Saturday, 73-63, to Penn State. (Tribune File Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)