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Notre Dame escapes Radford for season-opening win

Expectations were high for Notre Dame coming into the season. After a year in which they finished second in the ACC and nearly advanced to the Sweet Sixteen, few expected them to struggle against Radford in the season opener Thursday night.

Yet struggle they did, trailing for nearly the entire second half and by as many as nine points. It was a surprise test. But thanks to a go-ahead layup with just under ten seconds to play by graduate student guard Cormac Ryan, and a dominant 28-point, 12-rebound performance from graduate student forward Nate Laszewski, the Irish passed, escaping with a 79-76 victory. 

Head coach Mike Brey said that Notre Dame wanted to play teams that had a chance to win their conference in a bid to improve their strength of schedule.

“We wanted to play teams that had a chance to maybe win their league,” Brey said. “It was more the math of strength of schedule. Now, as soon as you agree to it, here they come.”

It was all Laszewski early in the contest for Notre Dame. He was nearly in double figures before the first media timeout after scoring each of the team’s first nine points. It was not until more than six minutes into the game that another Irish player got on the board. 

“[I was] just trying to play off my teammates,” Laszewski said of his performance. “Just trying to pick my spots, and when they were helping up to my teammates, they did a great job of finding me there.” 

Without graduate transfer guard Marcus Hammond due to injury, who is expected to play a significant role this season, Brey went with a tight, six-man rotation. In the first half, it seemed that whoever he substituted scarcely had time to sit down before they were back at the scorers’ table to return to the game.

“Has anybody ever averaged forty minutes per game?” Brey quipped. “I’m not going to take you out, I’ll try and rest you, and of course, we couldn’t take them out in the second half.”

Laszewski, Ryan and graduate student guard Dane Goodwin each played more than 38 minutes. Graduate student guard Trey Wertz chipped in 36 and freshman guard J.J. Starling saw 32. Freshman forward Ven-Allen Lubin scored 6 points in 16 minutes as Notre Dame’s only player off the bench. 

With Hammond out, Wertz moved into the starting lineup. He rewarded Brey’s faith with 18 points on 7 of 9 shooting. That included two huge three-pointers in the second half that kept the Irish in the game. 

“I told Trey Wertz the other day, when we knew Marcus would be down, I said, ‘Trey, don’t give the position back, take it.’ Well, he dang sure put an exclamation on it,” Brey said. 

The game remained close from start to finish. Starling’s second three-pointer of the night gave the Irish a one-point advantage heading into halftime. It was a relatively quiet night for the highly-touted freshman. But he hit several shots at key moments and played high-leverage minutes down the stretch.

“That was a great experience,” Brey said of Starling. “He was in there, in his college game, when it was hitting the fan, and I thought made some nice plays, and was part of that vibe that figured out how to win.”

The Highlanders came out of the locker room firing on all cylinders, quickly building a nine-point lead. Meanwhile, the Irish struggled to get anything going offensively. The Highlanders began to wear down Notre Dame with their depth and physicality.

“It was one of those games where they’re really gifted offensively,” Brey said. “We’re going to have to score to win, we’re not going to just stop them.”

However, this physicality proved advantageous for the Irish. Crucially, they went 16 of 18 from the free-throw line in the second half. Laszewski was particularly adept at getting to the line, scoring 12 of his 28 points from the charity stripe.

“He’s adjusted his game, driving, getting in there, getting fouled, he’s calm,” Brey said of Laszewski. 

Even as Radford continued to hit shot after shot late in the contest, the experienced Irish refused to quit. 

“The four older guys that are playing tonight have been in a multitude of situations throughout our career,” Wertz said. “[We] stayed calm and just methodically got back into it, it’s not going to happen on one possession.”

As he often did a year ago, it was Ryan who came through for Notre Dame when they needed it most. After Radford guard DaQuan Smith drove to the basket to try and extend Radford’s lead, he went down with an injury. Notre Dame took advantage of the 5-on-4 situation, as Wertz took his time and ultimately found a cutting Ryan who laid in the go-ahead bucket.

“When it’s chaos, I think we would have an advantage because of our experience, and we did,” Brey said.

Radford couldn’t convert on their final possession and as Laszewski knocked down two more free throws to seal the game. With them, Purcell Pavilion breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Notre Dame continues its non-conference slate when Youngstown State visits South Bend on Sunday at 4 p.m.

Contact Liam Coolican at lcoolica@nd.edu.

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