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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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Sports

Notre Dame to host Division I newcomer Southern Indiana

The Fighting Irish men’s basketball team will look to snap a six-game losing streak against in-state opponents Wednesday night. Southern Indiana and Notre Dame will share the hardwood for the first time ever. The matchup kickstarts the 2022 Gotham Classic. Notre Dame, after two narrow victories, can open a season 3-0 for the first time in five years. The Screaming Eagles are 1-1, having lost 97-91 at Missouri and then defeating Southern Illinois 71-53 in their home opener. 

Southern Indiana keeps climbing with consistency

Led by third-year head coach Stan Gouard, the Screaming Eagles are making their Division I debut this season. They made 23 NCAA Division II Tournament appearances prior to the switch. Southern Indiana competes in the Ohio Valley Conference and was picked to finish 7th in the OVC preseason poll. The program has not put forth a single losing season in the 21st century, adding an 18-8 campaign last year.

Senior guard Jelani Simmons is rolling out of the gate for USI. He averaged 14 points per game between the last two seasons and has scored 41 through two games. With a 16-27 start from the field, he took home OVC Player of the Week on Monday. Trevor Lakes, a graduate transfer from Nebraska, has made his mark as well. He hit six threes in the opening loss to Mizzou and has collected 11 rebounds through two games.

Junior guard Gary Solomon stepped up on Sunday, collecting 16 points and nine boards. Junior guard Tyler Henry has been the primary option off the bench for Coach Gouard. He has already made 13 trips to the free-throw line and scored in double-figures during both games.

Flying high in the second half

Notre Dame could not pull away easily against Radford and Youngstown State, and the same story might unfold again Wednesday. Southern Indiana has been sensational in the second half through two games. Against Missouri, the Screaming Eagles jumped from a 28% shooting mark in the first half to 71% in the second. They also exploded for 14 three-pointers after halftime, outscoring the Tigers 60-50 in the final 20 minutes. Southern Indiana then outscored Southern Illinois 43-27 in Sunday’s second half. In two games, that amounted to a 103-77 post-break margin. Notre Dame must either open the game up early on or limit USI’s late success to avoid another near-upset.

Six does the trick for Notre Dame

Graduate guard Marcus Hammond’s knee injury and the tightness of games one and two have roadblocked Notre Dame’s depth. Outside of junior forward Matt Zona’s two minutes of action, the Irish have rolled with the same six players. Graduate forward Nate Laszewski has expanded his game enough to carve out a significant interior presence. His back-to-back double-double performances carried him to ACC Player of the Week recognition on Monday. Though he brought in 10 rebounds on Sunday, he went without a field goal in the second half. That’s where graduate guards Cormac Ryan and Dane Goodwin emerged, each contributing 10+ points in the second half. Similarly, when Goodwin went 1 for 8 from the floor last Thursday, Laszeswki and graduate guard Trey Wertz combined for 46 points. 

In addition to the veteran chemistry, Notre Dame’s two most highly-touted freshmen are growing more confident by the minute. Guard J.J. Starling has gone 5-8 from distance through his first two collegiate games. He had his first signature moment on Sunday, dialing up a pair of game-deciding triples. In that game, he demonstrated a keen ability to create looks off the dribble, layering on the Irish offense. Meanwhile, forward Ven-Allen Lubin has started 7 for 8 from the field, even drilling a three-ball on Sunday. Head coach Mike Brey has the utmost in confidence in both of them. Starling played 37 minutes last time out while Lubin saw the floor for 23.

Irish continue to protect home court

Last season, Notre Dame went 9-0 in games decided by ten points or less at Purcell Pavilion. They have already locked up two such victories to open this year’s campaign. On opening night, the Irish finished the contest on a 13-5 run, punctuated by Cormac Ryan’s game-winning layup. Then, in Sunday’s 88-81 triumph, Notre Dame went 6 for 6 from the field, 2 for 2 from three-point range, and 4 for 4 on free throws in the final 4:30. Will the Irish finally display dominance from start to finish? It remains to be seen, but the track record is certainly still there when the going gets tough.

Wednesday night’s game will tip off at 8 p.m. and will be available on the ACC Network. The contest will mark the halfway point of Notre Dame’s season-opening five-game homestand, which will conclude with Lipscomb on Friday and Bowling Green on Tuesday.

Contact Tyler Reidy at treidy3@nd.edu.