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


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