All week long, Bonzie Colson had insisted that the right ankle was fine. So what if he had sprained it late in the ACC title game against Duke just five days earlier, causing him to walk around in a boot for a few days and sit out half of Wednesday's open practice?
The ankle? Feels great. No problem. Come on, this is March, the NCAA Tournament. Just tape the thing up, Colson said, and let's go play ball.
And that's what he did in downtown Buffalo on Thursday afternoon. Notre Dame's 6-5 junior forward was the difference between a classic first-round upset and a narrow escape, scoring 18 points as the Fighting Irish held off a determined Princeton team, 60-58, in a first-round NCAA thriller at the KeyBank Center.
Colson played with a contained fury, shrugging off the balky ankle to provide a vital inside presence in a clash of sound, similar fundamental teams that normally do much of their damage from the perimeter. But don't let him fool you. The ACC's double-double scourge wasn't at his best.
"He's sore," coach Mike Brey said. "You know what? He's a warrior, man. He played through some soreness. The great thing about the NCAA Tournament, you've got a day in-between to get that thing right again. This time of year, you're playing on adrenaline, anyways."
Colson appeared a bit anxious in the early going. Brey sat him a couple of times in the first half. Colson, perhaps favoring the ankle, was missing shots he usually makes in the post and getting a little frustrated. During timeouts, the coaches urged him to stay patient and "locked in," as the Irish like to say.
He shot 6 for 13 from the field and 6 for 10 from the foul line. Decent numbers, but not up to the standards of a man who had averaged 22 points and shot 58 percent in his previous 10 games. And that wasn't against the Ivies, but in the best league in the country, against the likes of ACC powers Duke, Louisville and Virginia.
"I mean, everybody's sore," said Colson, who had seven rebounds, two assists, two blocks and a steal in 31 minutes. "That's part of the game. Sometimes, you have to let the game come to you."
More and more, basketball is about the three-point shot, but post play still matters in the big games. Post players get to the line. They draw double-teams, creating space for teammates. Late in the half, Colson got the ball to the right of the lane.
Princeton showed a double, allowing Rex Pflueger an open lane to an easy hoop. At winning time, when the Irish were beginning to unravel and missing open jump shots, Colson was there to save them. Princeton, which trailed almost the entire game, sliced the deficit to 55-54 and had a chance to go ahead. But Colson got a hand on Amir Bell's three-point airball, then scored low to make it 57-54.
After another missed three, Colson posted up, drew a foul, and made both free throws to make it 59-54. The Irish hung on. Point guard Matt Farrell missed a jumper and a free throw, giving Princeton a final chance. But Devin Cannady's three-point attempt with 3 seconds left was wide and the Irish are alive on St. Patrick's Day.
"It was in the air a long time to me," Colson said with a smile in the victorious locker room. "I was just looking up, thinking 'Miss! Miss!' It was like a movie, kind of. It was a good feeling to get the win. It's March. We've been in a lot of these situations, and I think it showed today."
The Notre Dame upperclassmen have been in some gut-wrenching games in the NCAAs. Last season, they beat upstart Stephen F. Austin by one point in the second round, then made the regional final before losing to North Carolina by 14.
Two years ago, they lost to unbeaten Kentucky by two in the final seconds of the East regional in Cleveland. The difference that night? Kentucky's dominant post man, Karl-Anthony Towns, who didn't miss in the second half.
"I think that game lingers with us," said Farrell, who scored 16. "The past two years lingers with us. Getting to back-to-back Elite Eights is something really special, but we want to make that next step. We're a confident group and we use that as motivation to take that next step."
Notre Dame is an efficient team. They had only six turnovers, the ninth straight game in which they've had fewer than 10. They're among the national leaders in three-point shooting and free-throwing shooting. But it's hard to make the Final Four on outside shooting.
"We're a team that can do both," said Colson, whose father, Bonzie, played on the Rhode Island team that made the Sweet 16 as an 11th seed in 1988. "We can find cutters, do ball screen and rolls, throw it into the post. And not just me. We can throw to a lot of the guys."
None of the Irish have Colson's rare blend of offensive talents, an ability to take the ball to the rim and shoot from outside. He reminds me a little of Hall of Famer Adrian Dantley, another 6-5 Notre Dame star who might have been the best post scorer ever for his size.
Colson is a 40 percent three-point shooter, though he missed his only three against Princeton. Notre Dame took only 11 three-point shots, the fewest they've attempted in any game this season. Clearly, they wanted to take the ball inside against the Ivy League champions. It wasn't pretty, but Colson was good enough.
"He certainly was the difference," Brey said. "We were able to post him more. We really don't post him much against ACC teams. But we were just throwing that darn thing on in there today."
The three-point shot creates a lot of excitement and levels the playing field in the Big Dance. But invariably, the road to the Final Four goes through the low post. The Irish won't be alive long if Colson isn't healthy and a threat at the rim.
"My ankle's good," he said. "I feel good, taped up like always. It's fun. Put ice on it, and I'll be ready."