Never In Doubt
Before we dive right in, make sure to read all of the wonderful Senior Day coverage available at HOOSPlace.
Welcome back! Wasn't that enjoyable?
So, our Hoos and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish got together for a basketball game on a late Saturday afternoon in early March. It was UVA's last home game of the season and the last game of the regular season. As a result, it was Senior Day. The crowd and program would honor the senior (we're using NCAA language here, not the UVA vernacular) members of the team, both managers and players. The main event would be the players: Nigel Johnson, Devon Hall, and Isaiah Wilkins.
Notre Dame was a worthy opponent given their pedigree. The Irish were the 2017 Maui Invitational champions picking up wins over LSU and Wichita State. They had also made the Elite 8 in two of the last three NCAA Tournaments. In the last three ACC Tournaments, Notre Dame had a final appearance (2017), a semifinal appearance (2016), and a tournament championship (2015).
In the 2017 ACC Tournament, the Irish eliminated UVA in a game that has remained on the mind of UVA fans far and wide. It wasn't just that Notre Dame beat the Hoos by thirteen in a game that didn't feel that close, but it was the way that it happened. Notre Dame owned that game. To make matters worse, all everything forward Bonzie Colson dominated UVA and wasn't shy about letting the Hoos know as much. Then there was the infamous fly by-near collision with Tony Bennett after a Colson three gave the Irish an early 8-2 lead. Colson had taken on something of a public enemy number one status within some circles of UVA fans.
This was a revenge game, plain and simple. For many weeks, it appeared that the revenge may be incomplete. Colson broke his foot during an early January practice. Notre Dame announced that Colson would have surgery to repair the foot and miss approximately eight weeks. When the news broke, many a Hoo fan did the math. Colson's return by Senior Day was not a guarantee. Notre Dame suffered other injuries during the season, notably to starting point guard Matt Farrell and freshman DJ Harvey. Missing three of their top players, Notre Dame stumbled a bit. When they arrived in Charlottesville, they did not bring a stellar record with them.
They did bring Bonzie Colson, however. Colson returned to the court the previous game, Notre Dame's Senior Day against Pitt. Things suddenly looked much more interesting. Revenge was back on the menu.
Of course, Colson's return coupled with a full strength Farrell and a vastly improved Martinas Geben made the Irish a very dangerous team. There was a growing sense that Notre Dame was more than just a dangerous opponent. They were considered by many as a likely victor in the game, especially given their desperate need for a trademark win on their NCAA Tournament resume. Our very own StLouHoo predicted a Notre Dame victory in his excellent game preview series.
The Hoos were not going to lose this game.
Senior Day for Devon Hall and Isaiah Wilkins? No way. The Hoos were not going to lose this game. No way, no how. Hall would not allow it. Zay would not allow it. Their teammates would not allow it. The JPJ crowd would not allow it. Coaches and teams often talk about non-negotiables when talking about values, standards, and expectations for their teams. Winning this game was a non-negotiable.
Notre Dame got off to a quick start, taking a 5 to 1 lead out the gate on a Colson three and a Geben layup. No matter. A Devon Hall jumper at 16:42 left in the first half capped a 7-0 UVA run. The Hoos were not going to lose this game.
Kyle Guy suffered a frightening looking knee injury after smashing knees with Geben late in the first half. A hush fell over JPJ as Guy lay on the court in pain. No matter. Guy would return later with a brace. The Hoos were not going to lose this game.
Colson would record a near double-double in the first half (18 points, 9 rebounds). Didn't matter. The Hoos were not going to lose this game.
A six point UVA halftime lead flipped itself to a four point Notre Dame lead seven minutes into the second half. Why worry? Over the next six minutes, Hall would take over and directly contribute to twelve UVA points (six points scored, six points via assist) giving UVA a five point lead. The Hoos were not going to lose this game.
A four point run by Colson cut the lead back down to one with 3:27 to go. Still no cause for concern. Hall would snuff the Irish momentum with another tough layup in traffic. The Hoos were not going to lose this game.
Trailing by 2, with the ball and about 45 seconds remaining, Notre Dame had once last shot to ruin the day. Farrell would find Colson at the three point line. Colson's stat line would read 25 points and 14 rebounds. Isaiah Wilkins would pick Colson up at the line and morph into The Zay. It was the matchup that fate demanded. It was the matchup Wahoo fans needed. Colson would attempt to back Zay down. But to no avail. The Zay would ruin Colson's plans, poking the ball away as Colson attempted to direct perimeter traffic. The ball would roll into UVA's half of the court, killing precious time for the Irish.
Wilkins would try chase down the loose ball along with De'Andre Hunter and Kyle Guy. Matt Farrell would beat them to the spot giving the Irish another chance to spoil things as seconds ticked away from the shot clock. The Zay would race back getting himself into defensive position. Colson would get the ball back from Farrell at the top of the key with five seconds left on the shot clock. The Zay was there again ready to stifle Colson's villainous attempts to steal the game. The Zay would hold his ground and force a wild three point attempt by Colson as the shot clock was expiring. Airball. SHOT CLOCK VIOLATION. SHOT CLOCK VIOLATION. UVA ball. Game, set, match.
The Hoos were not going to lose this game.
De'Andre Hunter would go on to make three of four free throws to close out the game and provide the final margin of victory. Despite the circumstances surrounding the game, Colson's first half brilliance (luck?), the back and forth action, Notre Dame's temporary lead, and drama at the end of the game, I never once felt concerned about the final outcome.
There was just no way that Hall or Wilkins were going to allow a loss on their day. The rest of the team followed their lead and played with the same fortitude. The Hoos were not going to lose this game.
And they didn't.
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