CHICAGO — Notre Dame used red-hot second-half perimeter shooting to run past DePaul for a 72-58 nonconference victory on Saturday afternoon.
The No. 14 Fighting Irish (1-0) started the second half shooting 8-for-10 from the three-point line to blow the game open as sophomore guard T.J. Gibbs paced Notre Dame with a career-high 21 points. Preseason All-American forward Bonzie Colson also contributed a double-double with 18 points and 13 rebounds for the Irish while senior point guard Matt Farrell got hot in the second half to finish with 15 points. Notre Dame shot 14-for-25 in the second half as their offense looked very solid after a bit of a sluggish start.
While we certainly expected Colson and Farrell to be among the best players in the country after the way they played last season, the offensive emergence of Gibbs is the big story for the Fighting Irish. With Notre Dame needing to replace double-figure scorers like V.J. Beachem and Steve Vasturia from last season, Gibbs looked like he might be the consistent third scoring option the Irish were looking for.
“He’s been great in practice. He stats out right behind Bonzie Colson a lot of times. But he’s a fearless guy,” Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey said of Gibbs.
“He’s been unbelievable and he’s been a lot of fun to play with,” Farrell said of Gibbs. “We’ve been saying since the summer that he’s going to have a big year. Strong driver. He shoots it way better than people think and I think you saw that tonight. He’s confident.”
Gibbs never played more than 25 minutes in a game last season as he logged 38 minutes on Saturday. The increased minutes over the course of the season will be something to monitor with Gibbs as Notre Dame’s staff acknowledged that he started to hit the wall towards the end of last season. But Notre Dame’s staff was also confident that Gibbs might be a breakout player when he got in tremendous physical shape this summer. The Fighting Irish don’t seem to have a lot of depth once again this season, so Gibbs will likely need to play heavy minutes and continue to score on a nightly basis for Notre Dame to maximize its potential.
“I just think his mental attitude has really been at a high level. He’s always been a hard worker. He came in the program as a freshman and he was in the gym every day,” Notre Dame assistant coach Ryan Ayers said. “Now he knows he’s a starter and he doesn’t have people backing him up and he’s comfortable in his role. The last couple of weeks he’s been making shots in practice and he has teammates who believe in him.”
Another new starter for Notre Dame, junior guard Rex Pflueger, didn’t find his rhythm on the offensive end but he was a big presence on the defensive end, holding DePaul three-point threat Max Strus (11 points) to a miserable 3-for-13 shooting day. Pflueger also added nine rebounds.
“Me and him talked at halftime. Our shots weren’t falling too well but we talked about how well we were defending and how we could come out in the second half and it was a brand-new half,” Farrell said of Pfluger. “He did an unbelievable job defending and we’re gonna need him to do that all year.”
Freshman wing D.J. Harvey also chipped in seven points in 16 minutes off of the bench as he could be a key reserve to a Notre Dame team that is looking for reliable depth.
If Gibbs can keep scoring like this, it will alleviate a lot of the defensive pressure that Colson faces as he drew constant double-teams against the Blue Demon defense on Saturday. Notre Dame might not have an offense that is as potent as last season’s ridiculous group, but this team might be a notch better defensively thanks to Pflueger’s relentless energy chasing shooters. Pfluger should also be able to improve as at least a catch-and-shoot three-point threat as the Irish once again look like one of the toughest teams in the ACC this season.
“I think it’s safe to say we have a different kind of team this year, a different look,” Farrell said. “We think we can be better defensively, which really showed tonight in the second half.”
DePaul (0-1) opened up its brand-new Wintrust Arena with a feisty first 24 minutes until Notre Dame’s barrage of three-pointers ultimately did them in. Senior forward Tre’Darius McCallum and junior wing Eli Cain paced the Blue Demons with 14 points each. Sophomore point guard Devin Gage looked much-improved from last season as he scored 10 points, doing a good job of attacking the rim with downhill drives.
The Blue Demons look like they’ll be more competitive than in season’s past but they still need more out of their frontcourt in order to be truly competitive in the Big East this season.