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Men’s Basketball

Irish look to win second straight against Western Carolina

| Thursday, November 9, 2023

On Monday night, Notre Dame men’s basketball defeated Niagara in its season opener. The Irish will look to match that result on Saturday afternoon when they play host to Western Carolina.

While not perfect, the Irish’s 70-63 victory over the Purple Eagles was a promising first step in the debut of new head coach Micah Shrewsberry. Notre Dame, known in recent years for its veteran experience and year-to-year continuity, trotted out an almost entirely new lineup full of underclassmen and emerged with a hard-fought win.

After a slow start saw the Irish facing a 12-2 deficit just minutes into the game, the young group showed poise to steadily chip away at the deficit and enter halftime trailing by just one. The second period went back and forth, with the lead changing hands several times before Notre Dame claimed it for good in the final five minutes.

With so many new faces on the roster, Irish fans hoped to get a sense of which players would step into key roles this season. They certainly got that, as four freshmen and two transfers made up Notre Dame’s eight-man rotation.

The headliner was freshman guard Markus Burton, who wasted no time introducing South Bend to his scoring prowess. Burton used his quickness to get to the rim all night and would finish with 29 points, the most ever for a Notre Dame freshman in their first career game.

Beyond Burton, it was a balanced scoring attack for the Irish, who had just one other player in double figures. Freshman forward Carey Booth scored 10 points and grabbed a team-leading nine rebounds in a strong effort off the bench. Junior guard Julian Roper II and freshman guard Braeden Shrewsberry chipped in nine and seven points, respectively.

With the first Irish game for a majority of the team’s players and staff now in the books, Notre Dame shifts its attention to Western Carolina. While the Irish were tested, the Catamounts faced far less resistance in their season-opening 106-65 win against NAIA opponent Dalton State on Tuesday.

Western Carolina outscored the Roadrunners by 21 in the first half and kept its foot on the gas to score 55 points in the second. The Irish will need to prioritize guarding the perimeter and playing solid defense without fouling on Saturday. The Catamounts did most of their work on Tuesday from beyond the arc and at the stripe, making 11 three-pointers and converting 21 free throws.

Notre Dame could be aided in its defensive efforts by reinforcements. Sophomore forward Kebba Njie was ruled out of the Niagara game with a right hand injury but is considered day-to-day and could make his first appearance with the Irish on Saturday. Njie, a presumed starter for Notre Dame, started 26 games for Shrewsberry at Penn State as a freshman. His return would give the Irish a valuable interior presence on both ends of the floor.

Whether or not Njie returns to action, Notre Dame will be counting on a better shooting performance on Saturday. The Irish did not make a single three-pointer in the first half and finished just three of 17 from beyond the arc against Niagara, which was one of the primary reasons the Purple Eagles were able to stay in the game for so long.

But shooting aside, there were several areas of the Irish’s play on Monday that they’d like to carry forward. Notre Dame turned the ball over just seven times and won the rebounding margin by six, impressing in two areas that it sometimes struggled with last year. The Irish were dominant inside, outscoring Niagara 48-28 in the paint to make up for their inconsistent shooting. They also highlighted depth that has not been present in recent seasons. Eight Irish players saw at least 13 minutes of action, with a ninth, Njie, still waiting in the wings.

The Shrewsberry Era is now officially underway, and the Irish have an opportunity to continue building momentum and positive energy. Their nonconference schedule does not get any easier from here. Next week, they’ll be in Brooklyn for the Legend’s Classic, where they will face Auburn on Nov. 16 and either Oklahoma State or St. Bonaventure the following day. For a largely inexperienced team, taking advantage of every opportunity to pick up wins, especially at home, is crucial. The Irish delivered on Monday and will aim to do the same on Saturday.

Notre Dame will host Western Carolina at Purcell Pavilion on Saturday at 2 p.m. The game will be available on ACCNX and The Notre Dame Radio Network.

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