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Monday, March 4, 2024
The Observer

Irish hope to keep tournament hopes alive with Virginia matchup

The Irish needed Wednesday.

It was an emotional Senior Night victory over bottom-dwelling Pittsburgh that featured the Lithuanian national anthem, Bonzie Colson’s sister singing the U.S. national anthem and a triumphant return by Colson to the Notre Dame lineup.

But now, the Irish (18-12, 8-9 ACC) need Saturday, where a chance to pick up a resume-boosting win over No. 1 Virginia awaits.

Sarah Olson | The Observer
Irish senior forward Bonzie Colson drives around a defender during Notre Dame's 73-56 win over Pitt on Wednesday at Purcell Pavilion.

Judging by the records — 18-12 for the Irish and 26-2 for the Cavaliers — Virginia (26-2, 15-1) looks to be the clear favorite. But Notre Dame is playing for its tournament life, and importantly, the Irish hope Colson’s return to the lineup can propel them to an upset victory.

“Just having him back adds so much confidence and energy,” Brey said of the senior forward. “Those kids missed him, they missed his edge, his confidence, that he gets calls — we haven’t had a guy that can get calls in a while.

“He made some of those plays I haven’t seen in two months and I’m like, ‘Oh man did we miss that.’ A big offensive rebound in traffic, put-back 3-point play. Just a deflection with his length in the back of the zone. Twenty-one minutes was something to build on. We’ll get him higher in minutes on Saturday, I guarantee you that.”

In those 21 minutes, Colson totaled 12 points, nine rebounds and three blocks. More impressively, Colson picked up eight points and five rebounds in the first seven minutes of the game.

“I’m sure a lot of committee members watched tonight and see him being productive,” Brey said of Colson’s Senior Night performance. “And he’s only going to be playing more minutes. That definitely could help us.

“He gets to go after people again, he’s missed that. He was born to compete.”

While Colson’s offensive production is sorely welcome, Brey said he has to make sure Colson’s offensive touches don’t come at the expense of fellow senior forward Martinas Geben, who has stepped up in a big way for the Irish in Colson’s absence.

“The one thing I talked to those two guys about on Monday was, ‘Let’s not watch Bonzie or let’s do things to get Bonzie involved. Let’s just play,’” Brey said. “‘Martin, you still need to be aggressive and attack, and you’ve been fabulous for us. It doesn’t mean that you back up.’”

After Wednesday’s game, Geben said Colson’s return is a positive, but that a few more practice reps will help the two get back to a rhythm.

“It was good to be out there in real game situations with real defenders and not in practice simulation mode,” Geben said. “Just gave us reps moving together, we’re still a little rough as far as getting Bonzie back and getting back with our movement. But we’re going to get a couple practices in and keep moving forward.”

An aspect of Notre Dame’s game that improves dramatically with Colson and Geben in the lineup is offensive rebounding — a key to the game against the Cavaliers, Brey said.

“Marty’s been banging that board hard, and now you put Bonzie in there, too, we’ve got enough size on that front line that we should be able to really get up on the backboard,” Brey said. “Marty and Bonzie do a great job rebounding.”

Rebounding could decide the game, as Virginia is famous for playing a slow, defensively-stifling style of basketball where points are at a premium. The Cavaliers are holding their opponents to just 52.1 points a game on the season, and Brey said his team has to dig in for an ugly game.

“It’s gonna be a slug, slogging game,” Brey said. “You’re not going to score like you usually score, the pace is going to be slower. … We need to defend and rebound. We have to guard them and get on the offensive board.”

In years past, Virginia’s vaunted defensive wreaked havoc on Notre Dame, as the Irish lost their first five ACC matchups against the Cavaliers. However, Notre Dame turned a corner during last year’s ACC tournament and defeated Virginia 71-58 in the quarterfinal round.

“They’re really good and we respect them and the whole bit,” Brey said. “But we played pretty well against them in Brooklyn the last time we played, and we need to watch some of that and learn. I think that really helps us.”

Notre Dame and Virginia will tip off at 4 p.m. Saturday in Charlottesville, Virginia.