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Notre Dame Basketball, Bethel Recap: Digger Dances and Farrell Dunks?!

Pat Rick gets back into the hoops swing of things with one of his patented extremely-detailed basketball game recaps

NCAA Basketball: ACC Conference Tournament-Notre Dame Fighting Irish vs Virginia Cavaliers Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

I’d like to interrupt your regularly-scheduled Notre Dame Fighting Irish football programming to bring you this two-days-late recap of the Notre Dame men’s basketball team’s first originally-scheduled exhibition game of the season (an impromptu exhibition for charity against Holy Cross was played a couple weeks prior).

Head Coach Mike Brey’s Fighting Irish squad hosted the Bethel College Pilots, an NAIA team from Mishawaka with a total enrollment of about 1,650 students. The Notre Dame campus was buzzing on Friday evening considering the #3-ranked football team’s game the next day against Wake Forest, and yet inside Purcell Pavilion the crowd was equally energetic, with ND hoops fans excited for another promising season to get going and a lot of local Bethel fans excited to see their team play one of the best teams in the ACC.

NCAA Womens Basketball: Virginia at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

The game was sold out, and although 3 minutes prior to introductions/the national anthem the arena did not look filled out, by tip-off Purcell was packed and ready for basketball.

Before we get to the game, let’s quickly take a look at some of my very important and not-at-all-inane pregame observations:

Pat’s Very Important Pregame Observations

  • Bethel’s warmups featured t-shirt hoodies, which seems like an odd combination but is also something I am going to try to buy for my work league hoops team
  • I had the pleasure of sitting behind Digger Phelps once again during this game, and he was SO EXCITED to be back. He was chirping at everyone and knows EVERYONE. Austin Torres made a point to run over and shake his hand before the national anthem, and was one of the first of about 1,000,000 people to stop by and talk to Digger throughout the game
  • Digger’s banter with ND Insider’s Tom Noie got off to a great start, as Digger turned to yell to him “Tommy, you’re with all your friends!” and we all turned to see Tom sitting in his seat in press row, with no one else around him (exhibition games make for more spacious media seating)
  • Nik Djogo appears to be the official “guy who has a handshake for each starter during introductions” for this team
  • Djogo’s handshake with Martinas Geben ended with a leaping shoulder-bump kind of thing, and when Djogo landed he immediately began rubbing his shoulder...Geben came to play, baby!!!
  • Notre Dame great LaPhonso Ellis is an assistant coach for Bethel
  • Music just before tip-off: an instrumental version of Usher’s “Yeah” followed by the typical Cathy Richardson (“Here Come the Irish”) and Dropkick Murphys (“Shippin’ Up to Boston”)...not too shabby

First Half News and Notes

Bethel Starters:

#1 G Trey’von Covington

#4 G Ryan Lutz

#5 Kyle Hartman

#42 F Gage Ott

#43 F Paul Forman

Notre Dame Starters:

#10 G Temple “My Friends Call Me TJ” Gibbs

#5 G Matt “Matty Nice” Farrell

#0 G Rex “No Off Switch” Pflueger


#23 C Martinas “Bird Whisperer” Geben

The first half began exactly as you might expect, with Martinas Geben winning the opening tip and Matt Farrell scoring soon after with a stupendous head fake before blowing by his defender for a lay-in.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Notre Dame vs West Virginia Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

The Pilots were not to be intimidated that easily, though, and scored the next 7 points of the game on some good shooting and ball movement.

During a break in the action, Digger yelled “LET’S GO, WAKE UP!”

Immediately after, Rex Pflueger had a nice dish to Geben for a rim-rattling slam dunk, and then BONZIE got 66% of an and-one (i.e., he missed the free throw). Clearly, Digger absolutely runs this place - everyone does what he says.

Elijah Burns came in as the first guy off the bench, and looked good down low, playing strong defense and rebounding aggressively. His presence in the paint will be huge in helping alleviate the pressure on BONZIE this season. I’m a big fan so far.

After a Temple Gibbs three, Notre Dame took an 11-9 lead into the under-16 timeout. This timeout gave me a chance to notice BONZIE’s shoes, which appeared to be the 2017 Under Armor Easter Kicks. They looked pretty fresh.

As the first half rumbled on, Irish fans got to see Matt Farrell make a transition pass backwards through his legs to a trailing DJ Harvey, who knocked down the pull-up jumper after adjusting to the pass bouncing a little higher than it ideally should have. Soon after, Gibbs picked his guy’s pocket and set up BONZIE for another and-one.

At this point I’d like to begin a campaign for BONZIE to be the first athlete sponsored by AND1 since probably Lance Stephenson. I just want him to rock shirts like these all the time. Someone call those guys up, assuming that company is still in business, and tell them BONZIE is just months away from being able to sign a shoe deal.

John Mooney came into the game for BONZIE, and looked pretty good moving around out there. He made a gorgeous pass from the top of the key to a wide open Burns underneath the hoop. Burns subsequently dunked it. If those two are able to rebound, play defense, and move the ball like that all season, this team will be dangerous.

NCAA Basketball: Loyola-Maryland at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

With ND up 20-12 at the under-12 timeout, the Notre Dame Pom Squad came out for their first appearance of the game. Early in their performance, they all cast their pom-poms asunder, inspiring a scream of shock from the student section. This has become a tradition for the student section to do when this inevitably happens, and I am HERE FOR IT. The Notre Dame Squad (no longer the Pom Squad, since their poms are gone) proceeded to finish their performance.

Between that timeout and the under-8 one, the main item of note was Rex Pflueger getting a tough and-one in traffic, hurling his body into opposing players and landing hard.

Rex only has one setting (BALLS TO THE WALL), even in exhibition games, and so he’s a combination of fun-to-watch and gives-me-terrible-anxiety because I fear for his health every time he does something like that in what is essentially a meaningless game.

During the under-8 timeout, I spied the kid who always brings a dry-erase board for writing insults about the other team’s players. I loved this especially for this game, where the ND students almost certainly have never heard of any of the Bethel players. The dry-erase board, when I saw it, said “Shepherd orders a Big Mac at Burger King.” Someone should tell Tanner Shepherd he’s at the wrong restaurant, you guys.

Another item of note, the kid who wears a gold jacket and hat that you’ve seen in the front row of various football games was sitting next to dry-erase board kid. That’s a good combination if I’ve ever seen one.

NCAA Football: Southern California at Notre Dame
Gold Jacket kid pictured here between Chase Claypool and Daelin Hayes
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

This timeout also brought us the first T-shirt Toss Time of the game. With roughly 1.5 seconds of DMX’s “Party Up” played before the game resumed action, I still managed to see scores of grown adults jumping up and screaming for t-shirts from the people tossing them into the crowd. Fascinating stuff.

Back to the action on the court, Matt Farrell had to come out of the game with blood gushing from his cheek (“gushing” is an exaggeration in this case — I just wanted to make sure you guys are staying interested in this recap). He ended up getting 4 stitches but did return after that.

Notre Dame began to pull away a bit over the next 4-ish minutes of play, as fans were treated to a Mooney dunk, a Nik “New White Steve” Djogo emphatic swat of a Bethel player’s shot on a fast break, and a BONZIE turnaround jumper that made it 34-25 Irish and forced a Bethel timeout.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Princeton vs Notre Dame Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

DIGGER UPDATE: during that timeout, he turned around to wave to someone (maybe Tom Noie again, but hard to say) and the wave was a bit unsettling, with his eyes bugging out and his wave being a spirit-fingers kind of thing. I immensely enjoyed this but also tried not to make eye contact with him for fear of having some sort of curse put on me.

The Bethel timeout didn’t help much in terms of stopping Irish momentum, as the half finished with Geben scoring on a pretty post move, Harvey dropping in a smooth mid-range j, and BONZIE getting a tip-in just before the clock expired. Notre Dame went into halftime with a commanding 44-28 lead.


Notre Dame: BONZIE COLSON had 15 points and 7 rebounds, TJ Gibbs had 9 points, and just about everyone else who played in the game had 2-4 points. Irish shot 42.9% from the field, but were abysmal from 3 (27.3%) and from the charity stripe (20%).

Bethel: Extremely balanced half, with Tanner Shepherd the leading scorer (6 points), followed by Luke Fishers with 5 points, Gage Ott and Trey’von Covington with 4 points each, and then 4 others having scored 2-3. Kyle Hartman had 5 first half assists. The Pilots shot 48.6% from the field, 77.8% from the free throw line, but just 10% from 3-point range.


With rumors on the Twittersphere that Notre Dame won’t have Red Panda performing at any games this season, I came into this one extremely skeptical that I could ever enjoy a halftime show at Purcell again. Nevertheless, I tried to stay open, and was delighted to hear that this game’s act was none other than Steve Max, the Master of Simon Sez (Says...not sure why he changed the spelling here - to make it more fun?).

Steve Max came out onto the court with about 20 fans (10 guys and 10 ladies), ready to test their listening and obedience in the classic game of Simon Says. Mr. Max was wearing an awesome Steve Max Simon Sez basketball jersey that said “Steve Max” on the back along with the number 1, in case you needed proof who the true master of Simon Sez is.

Just before the fun began, Digger turned to one of the ushers/security folks who was standing guard at the tunnel nearest us, and asked, “Are you protecting him?” If he was, he did a pretty good job. No one got past him and out there to harass the Simon Sez guy. Excellent work, security dude.

Steve Max began his act, first whittling the group of boys down to one finalist. This consisted mostly of just saying “hands up” and “hands down” while intermittently not saying “Simon Sez” beforehand, causing guys to do what he said anyway and thus become eliminated.

At one point, he told them to put their hands up (without saying Simon Sez), then said “good” because no one did it, and then one kid proceeded to do it and get eliminated. Total “Shaqtin’ a Fool” moment right there.

After a girls’ final where the two girls continued to both fail, finally a girl named McKenzie won, advancing to the finals to face the boys’ champion, Jacob. Steve Max then had the two of them do a dance-off for some reason, said “I’ve never seen people dance before” — which, c’mon...cannot be true — and then named them both champions and got the crowd a little riled up by calling them the best fans in the nation.

On a scale of 1 to Red Panda, I give this about a 4. It was funny at times, but the ending seemed very anticlimactic. Also, the guy is a showman for sure, but I am very unsure how he started doing this, what actual skills he has in being a Simon Sez facilitator, and why people keep booking this act. I’ve seen it before and don’t totally get it. I do love the name Steve Max, however, and really hope that is a stage name he chose to give himself.

During halftime warmups, Digger called over multiple players for a quick chat, pointing out stats to Pflueger and giving Farrell some piece of shooting advice. Farrell proceeded to then hit 3 straight threes in warmups. Either whatever Digger said worked, or Matt Farrell just loves the song “Poison” by Bell Biv Davoe, which was playing at the time.

After the team huddled under the hoop and had TJ Gibbs dunk in the middle of them, the second half got under way.

2nd Half News and Notes

Early in the second half, as Bethel had the ball, I noticed two ND students just haphazardly screaming while Bethel moved the ball around and then one guy took a shot. These screams were basically shorter, quicker, basketball game versions of the most annoying sound in the world from Dumb and Dumber.

The player air-balled, and the two students high-fived. The best defensive student section in the country is back, folks (hence Bethel shooting 33% from the free throw line for the game).

Soon after, during a timeout, Purcell got things going with the Dance Cam, playing “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” first. Gold jacket kid was especially groovin’.

Then, they put on “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” by Michael Jackson, and Digger Phelps transformed into a DANCING MACHINE.

He’s the GOAT.

With Notre Dame up by low double digits and about 13 minutes to play, Bethel had one of the cooler shots I’ve ever seen find its way through the hoop. A Bethel player rocketed a pass just a bit too low to a cutting teammate, and the pass was deflected upward by a Notre Dame defender who was in between the two Bethel teammates. The deflection only redirected the ball as it kept its momentum, though, arcing high into the sky before dropping directly into the hoop. Here’s what I wrote down at the time in my game notes I used to write this recap:

“what the hell”

With ND up 57-46 at the under-12 timeout, the Notre Dame band played “Mr. Brightside” and I began crying tears of joy. Also, BONZIE has a double-double again. Water is wet.

After a Gibbs three-pointer (nice to see this team remembers how to shoot it from the outside...2-for-20 on the night was not a good look), and the Irish forcing a shot clock violation, ND went into the penultimate media timeout with a 70-49 lead and the game officially in hand.

NCAA Basketball: No.Carolina A&T at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

From there, ND just put the finishing touches on the win.

Geben, after getting blocked smothered-chicken-style by a Bethel player, managed to regroup and get an and-one. Geben ran from the other side of the court to high-five Gibbs for a made free throw (LOL). Then, Matt Farrell dunked. You know, all the usual stuff.

Wait, what?


I just recently stabilized emotionally after seeing Steve “White Steve” Vasturia dunk against Florida State last February. Now, Notre Dame basketball, you want me to process Matt Farrell throwing it down on a breakaway??? It was awesome and the team and crowd went bananas. I have not yet recovered two days later and am unsure when I will be back to normal.

With the score 79-49 and Burns getting a nice tip-slam follow on a Pflueger miss, the Irish headed into the final media timeout. With that, I took my leave, as I had plans with friends I needed to get back to in Michigan.

After I left, the Irish closed out the final minutes of the game on a 9-10 run, winning 88-59.

Final Stats

Notre Dame: BONZIE COLSON had 19 points and 11 rebounds, TJ Gibbs had 18 points, Martinas Geben had 13 points and 10 rebounds, Matt Farrell had 10 points and 7 assists, Elijah Burns had 9 points and 5 rebounds. Irish shot 45.1% from the field, 75.9% from the free throw line, and 10% from 3-point range (both made 3s came from Gibbs).

Bethel: Trey’von Covington had 14 points, Gage Ott had 11 points, and Tanner Shepherd chipped in 10 points. Bethel shot 42.9% from the field, 33% from the free throw line, and 29.2% from deep.

This is the Conclusion

It was a fun game, and the team certainly looks deep with guys who can contribute a lot. However, the shooting HAS to improve, at least a bit, if the Irish want to beat elite teams this season. BONZIE will get his all over the floor and guys like Farrell, Gibbs, Pflueger, and Harvey will do well attacking the rim, but the team needs guys to step up and knock down jumpers to keep defenses honest. I think they’ll be fine in that regard as the season progresses, but the first two exhibition games certainly haven’t been pretty from an outside shooting perspective.

Overall, though, I think this is going to be another fun and successful season of Irish basketball, and if everyone gets as focused as ND Leprechaun Joe Fennessy, maybe Brey will finally get this program back into the Final Four for the first time since 1978.

Have a great Sunday, everybody, and let’s get excited for a potential combination of ACC basketball and College Football Playoff football (knock on wood) for Notre Dame in January.