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Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024
The Observer

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