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Strong start carries Irish to win against Southern Indiana

After opening the season with two tight victories, Notre Dame men’s basketball sought a less stressful finish on Wednesday night against Southern Indiana in the opening game of the Gotham Classic. The Irish got just that, building a big first-half lead and holding on to earn an 82-70 win in Purcell Pavilion.

With a veteran group made up of several high-level shooters and playmakers, the Irish offense has run seamlessly in the early stages of the season. Their struggles in narrow wins against Radford and Youngstown State came on the defensive end and getting stops was a point of emphasis for the team entering Wednesday’s game.

“[Defense] was obviously a focus for us yesterday in practice, being a little bit more vocal on the defensive side of the ball as well as dictating what they were doing,” Notre Dame graduate student forward Nate Laszewski said after the game. “Just being a little more aggressive.”

Those adjustments paid dividends for the Irish, who held the Screaming Eagles to just 25 points on 34% shooting in the first half. Notre Dame had previously allowed at least 36 points in every half this season. By steadily opening up a lead that eventually ballooned to 17 points at the end of the half, the Irish were able to create significant separation from their opponent for the first time this year. Graduate student guard Trey Wertz attributed that to the team’s talented offensive players buying in on defense.

“I think it was just getting stops,” Wertz said about Notre Dame’s first-half advantage. “I think when you can string together stops — with the way we’re scoring right now on offense — you can start to build leads like that.”

The offense was led early on by Laszewski, who made a three-pointer on the game’s opening possession on his way to scoring 11 points in the first half. For Laszewski, who won ACC Player of the Week after averaging 21 points and 11 rebounds in Notre Dame’s first two games, these types of offensive outbursts have seemingly become the rule, rather than the exception. Laszewski has been a key player for several seasons, but after the departure of volume scorers like Blake Wesley and Paul Atkinson Jr. in the offseason, Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey challenged him to take on an expanded workload in the offense. After recording his third consecutive double-double with 18 points and 10 rebounds against Southern Indiana, it is clear that Laszewski is ready to step into that role.

“The stage has been cleared out for [Laszewski] to be the star, it took me time to explain that to him,” Brey said. “I love that he’s grabbed it.”

While Laszewski was critical in Notre Dame’s win, it was Wertz who led the Irish in scoring. He recorded a season-high 20 points in a continuation of his breakout season. After making two three-pointers in the first half, Wertz took over in the second period by keying in on the rim, consistently attacking Eagle defenders off the dribble and converting several tough finishes. For Wertz, who has primarily been a spot-up shooter for much of his Irish career, this season has highlighted the expansions of his offensive game.

Laszewski’s dominant offensive performance so far this season was easy to see coming. Wertz’s play, and even more so his leadership and game management, has come as more of a pleasant surprise, according to Brey. Wertz was not expected to be a starter for the Irish but seized his opportunity following graduate transfer guard Marcus Hammond’s knee injury. Hammond is expected to return to action in the coming weeks, but with Wertz having been perhaps the Irish’s best offensive player through three games, it is difficult to see him letting go of his spot in the starting five any time soon.

“I need a guy that’s running the team and who I can talk to, and we weren’t sure who that was going to be through June,” Brey said. “With Marcus Hammond out, [we said], ‘Trey, we need you, and we need 35 minutes [per game].’ He has just grabbed it. He’s calm and he sees the floor. I just love his demeanor.”

Wertz is clearly on the same page, as he attested after the game as to how Brey’s confidence in him has allowed him to make the leap from averaging four points per game last year up to nearly 18 in the current season.

“I’m someone with the ball in my hands a lot and the coaches trust me to make decisions,” Wertz said. “It feels good [to be scoring more], I know last year wasn’t the best scoring output that I’ve had. The guys trust me, coach trusts me. I worked hard all summer and the confidence is there now.”

Coming out of the halftime break trailing 42-25, the Eagles continued to fight, whittling the lead down to single digits several times. Most of the damage came in the paint, as the Irish struggled to contain Southern Indiana’s Trevor Lakes, who scored a team-high 21 points, and Jacob Polakovich, who added 16 points and 10 rebounds. Polakovich, who was not expected to play for another month following surgery to treat a Jones fracture, had several emphatic dunks in his first game back from injury.

A pair of Polakovich free throws trimmed the Irish lead to 51-43 with under twelve minutes to play, but the Eagles were ultimately unable to get any closer. The dagger came midway through the half when graduate student guard Cormac Ryan and Wertz made consecutive three-pointers to boost the Irish advantage from 10 to an insurmountable 16 in a matter of seconds. With the game in hand, Notre Dame emptied their bench in the final minutes to close out the 82-70 victory and improve to 3-0 for the first time since 2017.

Looking ahead, Notre Dame has a quick turnaround before returning to Purcell Pavilion to play Lipscomb on Friday at 7 p.m. The Irish will conclude the Gotham Classic next week, hosting Bowling Green on Tuesday and traveling to New York to face St. Bonaventure on Black Friday.

Contact Matthew Crow at mcrow@nd.edu.

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