An elated Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey walked into the postgame interview room and exclaimed: “We needed that one! We needed that one, baby!”
As he left the Purcell Pavilion floor, Irish junior forward Bonzie Colson — fresh off perhaps the best game of his career — screamed a similar message to the fans.
Notre Dame beat Wake Forest 88-81 on Tuesday in front of 8,851 spectators, snapping a four-game losing streak and getting back in the win column. After a 5-0 start in Atlantic Coast Conference play, Brey’s team had lost five of its last six games entering a pivotal game against the upstart Demon Deacons.
“It feels good to win,” Brey said. “We hadn’t won in a while, it feels good to win.”
Colson was the catalyst for Notre Dame’s comeback Tuesday. The Irish trailed by nine points with 16:39 left in the second half with no answers offensively or defensively. Again, Notre Dame went small against the Demon Deacons, and Colson became more perimeter-oriented on offense.
Colson finished with a season-high 27 points, 16 rebounds and a season-high five blocks against Wake Forest while playing 36 minutes.
“He’s the only big on the floor, and there’s room because you’ve got to guard our shooters,” Brey said of Colson. “He has a very good stroke, and that can continue to be a weapon, him shooting the 3-point shot.”
He was 10-of-16 from the field and made both his 3-pointers, which came within two minutes of each other midway through the second half to help Notre Dame climb back.
Colson also drew a tough defensive assignment, matched up with Wake Forest sophomore forward John Collins. The 6-foot-10, 235-pound Collins finished with 24 points and 14 rebounds, but was less effective on the glass in the second half.
“He was real tough. He can face up, he’s strong and physical, but I just had to have a strong chest,” Colson said of Collins. “Coach (Ryan) Humphrey was talking to me a little bit and motivating me a little bit more. Sometimes you need that, and I knew I had to bring it.”
Collins was tough. As third-year Wake Forest head coach Danny Manning said, the forward is “starting to understand how good he is, how athletic he is.” That did not stop the undersized Colson from going right at the former four-star recruit.
His teammates took notice.
“Bonz just showed that toughness that we all know he has and he really brought it for all 40 tonight,” senior wing V.J. Beachem said.
Brey said he used a couple timeouts during the second half to get Colson some rest, unable to substitute for the forward.
“To wrestle Collins in the post and then do what he did offensively is physically unbelievable,” Brey said. “Then the numbers he had, taking big shots, taking those big 3’s, he’s a winner. He’s a winner.”
Colson said that two-way challenge is something he embraces.
“I’m accepting it and I just have to keep battling whatever big it is and keep giving it my all,” Colson said.
Brey lauded Wake Forest (14-10, 5-7) as an NCAA Tournament team. The Irish had to dig deep for energy against the Demon Deacons after facing first-place North Carolina on Sunday. Brey said with the quick turnaround, he considered benching his starters in the second half against the Tar Heels once the Irish went down 13. Notre Dame rallied in that, cutting it to two points late, but that effort was lacking Tuesday.
“It went through my mind, because this was coming fast,” said Brey, whose team hosts Florida State on Saturday at 6 p.m. (ESPN). “We’re worn out.”
Brey Loosens Up Team
The 17th-year coach said he put on a brave face for his team Tuesday, knowing the stakes of the game and the challenge Wake Forest presented.
“It was a total show,” Brey said. “I was tied up in knots inside, but I faked it like a son-of-a-gun. I’ve gotten really good at it.”
In the shootaround Tuesday, Brey said he was kidding with guys, even taking three or four half-court shots to lighten the mood.
“It couldn’t be, ‘Oh my god, we’ve got to have this.’ They know they’ve got to have it. I’m just trying to keep them loose because they want it bad.”
Another New Lineup
For the third-straight game, Notre Dame went with a different starting lineup. Sophomore guard Rex Pflueger made his second-career start — his previous was Jan. 28, 2016 at Syracuse.
After 23-straight games of junior forward Martinas Geben in the starting lineup, Brey went with senior forward Austin Torres against North Carolina. Tuesday, he changed it up again.
“It’s obviously a different look when you have four guards out there, the floor is way more open, which allows guys like Matt (Farrell) and myself and Rex to get into the lane,” senior guard Steve Vasturia said. “You saw that today, guys getting in the lane and we got a lot of open 3’s. It’s definitely a little different, but it’s something we’ve been practicing and it’s pretty successful.”
And it translated to points, much to Brey’s liking.
“It’s so good to look and see 88 on the board for us,” Brey said. “We’re going to have to score and then hold our own on the board as much as we can on the other end.”
Kelly And Elko In Attendance
Purcell Pavilion had at least two celebrities in attendance Tuesday night.
Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly and new defensive coordinator Mike Elko sat courtside across from the Notre Dame bench for the game against the Demon Deacons. It was the first basketball game Kelly has attended this season.
In the second half, Colson hit a big 3-pointer in front of the coaches and gave a big yell in their direction. Both Kelly and Elko shared a laugh about it afterwards.
The 39-year-old Elko, of course, comes from Wake Forest, where he was defensive coordinator from 2014-16. Both Kelly and Elko exchanged pleasantries with former Notre Dame basketball coach Digger Phelps before the game.