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Irish best Penguins behind stellar offensive performance

After the picturesque first snowfall of the season, the Notre Dame men’s basketball team hosted the aptly named Youngstown State Penguins for a Sunday afternoon contest. While many have pointed to the Irish as one of the most experienced teams in the country due to their six graduate students (four of which played today), Youngstown State had three graduate students of their own play big minutes.

The Penguins returned three starters from a team that went 19-15 last year. The Penguins were fifth in the Horizon League preseason poll, with one first place vote. They came into Purcell Pavilion with a 2-0 record. The Irish played their season-opener versus Radford on Thursday, ultimately prevailing 79-76.

Going into the season, the Irish were sixth in the ACC preseason poll. The Irish knew going into today’s contest that the Penguins could score, as they tallied over 90 points in each of their first two contests. The Penguins shot 50.8% from the floor today, but the Irish bested them with a 60% mark. The Irish had an extremely balanced attack, with five players finishing in double figures.

Graduate student guard Dane Goodwin paced the Irish, scoring 20 points on 9 of 14 shooting. Although he had a slow start, the Ohio product was able to get in the lane and hit from mid-range. Penguins head coach Jerrod Calhoun said that the Irish were “very balanced” and that “they played with a sense of urgency.”

Freshman guard JJ Starling contributed 17 points in an extremely encouraging performance. Compared to the first game, where Starling said he was “a little in his head,” the freshman phenom looked much more confident. He was also the go-to-guy down the stretch for an Irish team looking for a freshman leader, similar to the role Blake Wesley played a season ago.

After Youngstown State cut the lead to three points with 2:20 left to play, Starling hit a corner three to extend the lead to 6. After another Penguins basket, Starling came back down the court and canned another three to give the Irish a 7 point lead with under 80 seconds to play. Head coach Mike Brey loved his star freshman’s play, praising his basketball IQ and his sharpness on the court.

Starling looks to be fitting in well in the Irish’s experienced rotation. His graduate student teammates can also serve as a calming presence during his first games. Another freshman, Ven-Allen Lubin, contributed nine points as well. The athletic forward from Florida also sent back two shots in over 23 minutes on the court. Lubin also showed off his range, hitting a three pointer on the wing. The play of Starling and Lubin on Sunday prompted Brey to call them “as poised as our four old guys.”

Graduate student Trey Wertz added 15 points, playing with more confidence than Irish fans have ever seen from the guard. Wertz had 7 points in a two minute stretch in the first half. Coach Brey said he was “thrilled for Trey,” who has come into his own in a starting role after being a “loyal seventh man” for the last two seasons.

“He’s like Prentiss (Hubb),” Brey said. He remarked that Wertz’ calmness with the ball in his hands resembled Hubb, last year’s main ball handler.

The Penguins’ offense largely centered around forward Adrian Nelson and guard Dwayne Cohill. Nelson, a graduate transfer from Northern Kentucky, had a career high 27 points while yanking down 10 rebounds. After only scoring two points in the first half, Cohill, a Horizon League Preseason First-Team All Conference selection, came through with a 16-point performance in the second. The Penguins played a scrappy game, cutting the Irish lead to three points or less four times throughout the game. They stayed in the game throughout. But the Irish never let them put together a run to take the lead.

The depth of the Penguins also presented a challenge. The Penguins played 10 players, where the Irish only played seven. If the Irish were fatigued, though, it didn’t show much late in the game.

Nevertheless, the Irish are eagerly awaiting the return of graduate student Marcus Hammond. Hammond, who scored 18 points per game with Niagara last year, will help to alleviate the pressure and workload currently on the starters’ shoulders. Brey noted that he feels good about where Hammond is at regarding his recovery. He also said that he expects him to return for their game on Tuesday, Nov. 22 against Bowling Green.

The Irish look to continue their winning start with two games in Purcell Pavilion this week. They play their first game of the Gotham Classic against Southern Indiana on Wednesday before welcoming Lipscomb on Friday.

Contact Joseph Tunney at jtunney@nd.edu.

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