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Tuesday, June 18, 2024
The Observer

‘This is where we should be’: Irish use dominant first half to take down Louisville

Four minutes into their Saturday afternoon home matchup with Louisville, it looked like Notre Dame men’s basketball was in for a dogfight. Trailing 9-7, it was shaping up to be a game in which neither team gained separation until the final seconds.

Fast forward three more minutes, Notre Dame had rattled off a lightning-fast 13-0 run, and it became clear that it would not be one of those games, the kind that the Irish have become so familiar with in recent weeks. Instead, it would be the kind that they have been waiting for all season, where they roll to a drama-free, 76-62 victory.

“It feels good. I wouldn’t say we’re surprised. I think we’ve never lost faith in this group. We all know what we’re capable of,” graduate student guard Cormac Ryan said about the team’s performance. “Being able to go out and execute, it’s a good feeling. But we looked at the scoreboard and it wasn’t like, ‘we’re happy to be here’. This is where we should be, and this is where we know we can be.”

Turnovers were an area that the Irish needed to improve upon in order to reach that elevated level of play, both in terms of forcing more and giving away fewer. Tuesday night’s loss against NC State saw them finish minus-13 in the turnover margin, but Saturday’s game was a different story.

Ryan set the tone by recording steals on Louisville’s opening two possessions. By the time the first half was over, the Cardinals had turned the ball over eight times to the Irish’s zero. Notre Dame finished the game with just three turnovers while tallying 16 assists. Eight of those came from Ryan, who referred to the Irish’s ball movement as quintessential Notre Dame basketball. He gave all the credit to the shot-making of his teammates.

“I got some tricks up my sleeve, I can throw it around a little bit,” Ryan said with a laugh after setting a new career-high assists mark. “Look, in order to get an assist, guys [have to] make shots. We’ve got talented guys who were knocking down shots tonight. I’m happy to do my part.”

Many of those knocked-down shots came from freshman guard JJ Starling, who was dynamic throughout the game in what was likely the best all-around performance of his college career. Starling finished with a game-high 22 points and did everything. He scored from all three levels, soared for contested rebounds (finishing with six total, three offensive) and played hard defense throughout.

The highlight of the game came when Starling picked off a Louisville pass and turned it into a dunk on the other end in the final seconds of the first half. That play capped off an individual 7-0 scoring run from Starling and extended the Irish’s halftime advantage to 46-24. To Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey, Starling’s breakout performance is indicative of a young player who has been steadily improving all season long.

“Understanding how to be focused on a daily basis in practice and throughout a game,” Brey said of Starling’s growth. “You see what he can do physically, and I think he’s learning that that’s an amazing weapon and advantage that he has.”

Starling mentioned his teammates as a catalyst for his big scoring performance. However, he was more concerned with getting the Irish back into the winning column.

“Seeing the ball go in, my teammates were making shots. That just got my energy up and I just started hitting [shots] as well,” Starling said. “Honestly, I just want to do my job to get wins, whether that’s me scoring like I did tonight or having five points. I just want to do my job, my part, and that comes defensively first.”

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Credit: Max Petrosky | The Observer

Following Notre Dame’s struggles to effectively defend during its four-game losing streak, the entire team seemed to buy in defensively. The effort paid dividends on Saturday. The Irish had given up at least 80 points in each of their last three games, but Louisville barely crossed the 20-point threshold in the first half. They finished with just 62. Notre Dame keyed in on Cardinals guard El Ellis, the team’s leading scorer at over 17 points per game, and held him to just eight. The Irish defense also forced 12 turnovers and committed just 13 fouls.

While the Cardinals got hot in the second half, shooting 62% from the floor, they had dug too deep of a hole to ever get back within striking distance. Brey praised Notre Dame’s effort defensively, noting the effectiveness of their match-up zone in improving defensive communication. It also helped them withstand the loss of their best interior defender, freshman forward Ven-Allen Lubin, who is expected back next game after suffering a minor ankle injury.

“I thought we were pretty good defensively, very good defensively in the first half. We played a little bit of this match-up zone,” Brey said. “It really helps us protect the paint and also makes a quiet team talk more.”

Notre Dame’s big halftime lead would continue to get bigger, peaking at 30 early in the second half. That’s when Louisville suddenly began making shots and the Irish suddenly began missing. The Cardinals started full-court pressing, consistently setting Notre Dame up with open shot attempts in transition. But after making seven three-pointers in the first half, the Irish connected on just three in the second, allowing Louisville to slowly chip away at the lead.

With the deficit at just 14 and over eight minutes still to play, Irish fans may have started to sweat, but the Cardinals would never get any closer. After ceding 14 consecutive points and not scoring for over six minutes, Notre Dame snapped the streak with a pair of Starling free throws. Soon after, graduate student forward Nate Laszewski buried a dagger three-pointer, and the Irish finished off a 76-62 victory. Beyond Starling’s 22 points and Ryan’s 11-point, eight-assist performance, Laszewski scored 17 and graduate student guard Dane Goodwin added a double-double to guide the Irish to their first win in nearly three weeks.

Brey commended his team for having the character and mental fortitude to bring their best effort every day in practice even when it wasn’t translating to wins.

“I’ll give this group credit, though. They’ve come in and worked even though they’ve been punched,” Brey said. “I think our seniors have kept that practice habit going.”

While that may be the case, Brey said it’s certainly easier to find that energy throughout the week following a big win like Saturday’s.

“You always practice better after a win, man,” Brey said. “You got a little spring in your step.”

The win improved the Irish to 10-12 (2-9 ACC) on the year. It also pushed them to 1-0 in games in which Brey wears a suit, after he participated in Suits And Sneakers Week to support the Coaches vs. Cancer program. So what will he be wearing next Saturday when the Irish host Wake Forest, seeking their second straight ACC victory?

“I’ll tell you one thing [about] that suit: I’m dry-cleaning this sucker and it’s coming out Saturday, you can guarantee it,” Brey said. “I’m riding the suit.”

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Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey calls out to a player during the game between Notre Dame and Wisconsin at the Purcell Pavilion on Saturday, Jan. 28, 2023. Credit: Max Petrosky | The Observer