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Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024
The Observer

Notre Dame tops Bethel as regular-season opener draws near

Everyone is familiar with the saying, “Defense wins championships.”

And while No. 14 Notre Dame has plenty of games to go before it is playing for a championship, it was its defense that won it Friday’s exhibition game with neighboring NAIA foe Bethel.

With 11:25 to go in the second half, the Irish allowed another basket to the Pilots, bringing Bethel’s run to 11-2 and cutting the Irish lead to just nine at 57-48.

A nine-point game halfway through the second half probably isn’t what the sellout crowd at Purcell Pavilion had been expecting to see Friday against the visitors from Mishawaka.

But what they saw the next 6:54 probably was closer to it.

During that stretch, the Irish proceeded to go on a 24-1 run to run the score to 81-49, allowing the Irish to cruise to a much less surprising final score of 88-59 in their second exhibition game of the season.

And the run was fueled by the Irish defense, as they kept the Pilot offense without a field goal for over seven minutes and forced seven turnovers to propel itself to several easy baskets in transition.

Kathryne Robinson | The Observer
Irish sophomore guard T.J. Gibbs dribbles around a defender during Notre Dame's 88-59 win over Bethel in an exhibition game at Purcell Pavilion on Friday.

“I think that’s something that we’ve really been preaching,” Irish sophomore guard T.J. Gibbs said of the team’s ability to force turnovers during that seven-minute stretch. “I think this year with [junior guard] Rex [Pflueger] being the ball hawk he is, [senior guard] Matt [Farrell’s] speed and me trying to contribute whatever I can on the defensive end, I think we can do that a lot — turn people over, get a couple more steals and a couple more plays where we’re getting easy baskets. That’s something that we need to do a little bit more, and that’s just one part of how that sparked a run for us, and we just need to keep it going.”

Irish head coach Mike Brey credited both the team’s ability to get to the foul line as well as throwing a new defensive look at the Pilots at that period in the contest.

“I thought we got the ball in the low post, and then we got to the bonus quickly, so we were scoring from the foul line,” Brey said. “And then we defended pretty well, and then we changed a little bit and played some zone, and that gave them problems.”

And while the team’s run helped them to extend their lead, the game did not always appear to be in their control. The Pilots — in front of a sellout crowd that included many of their fans — jumped out to an early 7-2 lead and put pressure on the Irish from the beginning of the game.

“We knew that from the start — they definitely came out really intense,” Gibbs said. “I think at one point it was a [7-2] game, and we were looking and we realized that this is just like the ACC. We’re going to have some road wins, some atmospheres like that, and they matched our atmosphere here. It was crazy to see how many fans they had, and just all the power to them. They’re a great team … they’re going to go far.”

However, the Irish would go on a 22-7 run over the next nine minutes to take a 24-14 lead, and they would ride Bonzie Colson to a 44-28 lead at halftime. The senior forward led the Irish with 19 points and 11 rebounds on the night — including 15 points and seven boards in the first half.

“He’s ready to play, he’s such a warrior,” Brey said of Colson. “The guy doesn’t have a bad practice, he wants to compete every day. If anything, you got to shut him down in practice a little bit. We shortened it up so he’s not on his legs for an hour and a half fighting everybody because we’re going to need those wheels as the year goes on.”

Gibbs was the other strong contributor for the Irish in the scoring department, as he dropped in 18 points by going 2-for-4 from the 3-point line and 10-for-10 from the free-throw line. Despite Gibbs’ success from beyond the arc, however, the rest of the team was 0-for-16 from 3, and the team as a whole was also just 3-for-17 in its first exhibition game with Holy Cross.

“That’s just something that comes with playing,” Gibbs said of the team’s early shooting struggles. “That’s why we play these exhibition games, to get the kinks out. That’s clearly a kink that we need to work out — I mean, we all know that we can shoot it. We have confidence in each other, [and] we’re not going to take any less 3s — I think that’s a big part of our game, and we know we’re going to knock them down. That’s not a real worry for us.”

And on nights such as Friday where the Irish do struggle to score from distance, Brey said they will have to find different ways to make up for it in the scoring department, just as they did Friday.

“I don’t know if we’ll shoot it from out there like some of these other teams every night,” Brey said. “We’ve got to figure out ways where we can score. Throwing it in the post is going to be very important for us, more than ever before. … The foul line is going to be important for us — we get to the bonus quicker because we’re driving it more. There’s where we’re scoring. … That’s going to have to be a big weapon for us.”

Brey also said the Irish will have to find different players who can potentially score for them. The starters accounted for 65 of the team’s points Friday, and while Brey expects that production to continue throughout the season, he’s hoping to find some scoring off the bench, and he thinks freshman forward D.J. Harvey can provide that added offense as the second man off the bench for the Irish.

“We really wanted to look at that and get him in there, and he’s physically really ready to do it,” Brey said of Harvey as the team’s seventh man. “He has had a very good week of practice. I think he took another step away from being a young guy in the last week. He was talking more, and his midrange stuff — he can score for us a little bit, and physically he’s ready to help us. … We have to get him ready.”

Thus, when it was all said and done, Friday’s game turned out to be exactly what the Irish were hoping for — strong preparation for Saturday’s regular-season opener in Chicago against DePaul.

“Yeah, that was great,” Brey said of Friday’s game. “It was really great for our community. When [Pilots head coach] Ryne [Lightfoot] started talking about it in the summer, I thought it was a no-brainer, and I’m excited we could do it for his first year. He’s done a great job putting his mark on the program, and they were hard to deal with. They kept coming at you and running their stuff, and to have a full building and have to fight through some stuff — we weren’t shooting it great, we had to figure out different ways to score — real games are going to be like that.”