SOUTH BEND — When the house lights dimmed and it was time to meet the starting lineup for Notre Dame’s season opener Tuesday, freshman guard Robby Carmody just beamed.
Carmody admitted that he couldn’t stop smiling, and he had good reason.
His name was the first of five called prior to a Gotham Classic game against UIC. When it did, Carmody became the first freshman to start an Irish season opener since former power forward Torin Francis in 2002.
Coach Mike Brey has been searching for a starting combination all fall. Maybe this five, maybe that one. Which one? Any one. He may have found one Tuesday, one that included Carmody in an 84-67 Irish win.
“It was an amazing experience,” said Carmody, who scored 11 points in 14 minutes. “Coach Brey trusts me with this opportunity and I’m hoping that I proved him right.
“I feel really blessed when he gave me this opportunity.”
Carmody didn’t realize he’d start until Monday afternoon's scout session when he saw his name paired against a UIC player. Then it hit him. It was the first time he’d been slotted to open with the Irish starters all preseason. He’s usually in a white (starter’s jersey) during practices, but always starts with the reserves. Not Tuesday.
“I was really nervous going into practice,” he said. “It was really nerve-racking and got me ready for what I needed to do.”
Brey figured Carmody would be ready.
“He’s a downhill, make plays, unafraid guy,” he said.
Carmody didn’t have to wait long to prove worthy of a top spot. He refused to settle for a perimeter shot in an early possession, instead driving it hard to the hole for a layup. He also drew a charge and forced two more turnovers with his defensive pressure. His intensity. His focus.
All within the first three-plus minutes.
“It helped me settle down right away,” he said. “That kind of got that built-up energy to wear off and I was ready to lock in from there.”
Brey considered Carmody taking the charge as a tone-setter for the night. The lopsided night. It occurred 22 seconds into the start of a new season. Carmody’s early aggressiveness set a tone that the Irish followed, a tone that this team hadn’t really had. Certainly not back in August with a three-game foreign tour of the Bahamas. Nobody has any intensity at that point in the calendar. But when it also didn’t show much in exhibition games against Cincinnati — Brey admitted Tuesday that the Irish weren’t very good that Sunday last month in Indianapolis — or last week in the lone home exhibition against Division II Central State (Ohio), the coach started to wonder. Maybe even worry. Would the Irish show that energy when needed?
It certainly didn’t happen on Monday in the final practice before the opener. Brey expected to see something, to hear something, and when he didn’t see anything resembling intensity, and even less communication, he’d seen enough.
“We got thrown out of practice (Monday),” said sophomore small forward D.J. Harvey “(Monday) kind of set the tone. We just came out ready to play.
“We all just locked in, played for each other.”
“We needed to hit the rest button a little bit,” Brey said.
Practice the second time around Monday was a lot better than the first. The focus was there. So was the communication. From everyone. Young and old. Starter and reserve. Didn’t matter. They talked.
“It,” Harvey said, “was the loudest practice we’ve ever had.”
The Irish played Tuesday how they practiced. Notre Dame jumped all over UIC. The Irish never trailed and led by as many as 36. This one got away from the visitors so fast that the Flames likely wondered on their ride all the way back to Chicago how it exactly happened.
“They came out and punched us early,” said Flames coach Steve McClain. “We didn’t handle that well.”
A day earlier, Brey worried about a team picked to finish third in the Horizon league. The next he knew, Notre Dame was driving it from all angles and either got to the basket or got to the foul line.
“I’m pleasantly surprised and pleased,” Brey said.
Notre Dame (1-0) connected on its first 21 free throws and finished a staggering 36-for-38 (94.7 percent). Brey figured the Irish, who have led the Atlantic Coast Conference in foul shooting each of the last two years, and led the nation two years ago, would shoot it well. But that well? Please.
“That’s crazy off the charts,” Brey said.
Carmody wasn’t the only freshman who had a fine night his first night out. Dane Goodwin added 10 points in 20 minutes while classmate Nate Laszewski delivered a team-high 12 points and nine rebounds in 19 minutes off the bench.
None of the three played the way McClain had seen on video from last week’s exhibition. Last week, they each looked like freshmen. Not Tuesday.
“(Notre Dame’s) young guys really took a big jump from the exhibition to tonight,” McClain said.
Five Irish scored double figures, including Harvey. He had 10 points and six rebounds in taking a big step back while playing in his first official game since suffering a left knee injury that necessitated February microfracture surgery.
Harvey shouldn’t be doing what he’s doing. Not this early. But he’s doing it. Confidently.
“Even the doctors are saying it’s not 100 percent,” Harvey said. “The hard work’s paying off for me.”
Notre Dame didn’t place its first scorer into double figures until 14:55 remained when Goodwin hit a bucket and free throw to give him 10. Carmody was second to 10 following a second-half tip-in of his own miss.
The Irish moved to 19-0 in home openers under Brey.
Notre Dame went 10 deep before the first half was half over. All by design. Brey wanted to evaluate at least 10 guys in the opening 20 minutes.
A Prentiss Hubb 3 opened a double-digit advantage — 16-6 — at 13:58. A Goodwin 3 stretched it to 20 — 41-21 — with 3”48 left before half. The Irish never trailed and led by as many as 23 in a first half that featured 27 total fouls and 34 free throws. Notre Dame made its first 21 from the line and finished 23-of-24 from the line the first half.
Tuesday was No. 11 as Notre Dame fielded 13 different lineup combinations in the first 20 minutes. The Irish started the same five to start the second half, a first for all the games they’ve already played.
That lineup didn’t last long. Goodwin subbed for Carmody barely a minute back.
One guy who won’t have a game feel this season is freshman power forward Chris Doherty, who will sit out the season to preserve a year of eligibility and go on the five-year plan. That was the plan all along. Doherty was the last prospect added to the five-man freshman class.
Tuesday started a stretch of four games in 12 days for the Irish, who return to action Thursday at home against Chicago State.
• NOTRE DAME 84, UIC 67
At Purcell Pavilion
UIC (67): Jordan Blount 5 2-3 12, Travell Washingtotn 2 0-0 5, Marcus Ottey 6 5-6 17, Tarkus Ferrguson 3 4-5 12, Godwin Boahen 4 0-2 10, Jacob Wiley 0 2-2 2, ralph Bissanithe 0 0-2 0, Jamie Ahale 1 0-0 2, Dominique Matthews 1 0-0 3, Rob Howard 1 0-0 2, Michael Diggins 1 0-0 2. TOTALS 24 13-20 67.
NOTRE DAME (84): John Mooney 5 0-0 10, Rex Pflueger 1 3-3 5, D.J. Harvey 2 6-6 10, T.J. Gibbs 2 4-4 9, Robby Carmody 3 5-6 11, Dane Goodwin 3 3-3 10, Nate Laszewski 3 5-6 12, Elijah Burns 0 6-6 6, Prentiss Hubb 2 0-0 5, Juwan Durham 1 4-4 6, Nikola Djogo 0 0-0 0, Liam Nelligan 0 0-0 0. TOTALS: 22 36-38 84.
Halftime score: Notre Dame 84, UIC 67. Field goal shooting: UIC 24-of-64 (37.5 percent); Notre Dame 22-of-62 (35.5). 3-point field goals: UIC 6-of-29 (Ferguson 2, Boahen 2, Washington, Matthews); Notre Dame 4-of-22 (Gibbs, Goodwin, Laszewski, Hubb). Rebounds: UIC 35 (Wiley 6); Notre Dame 51 (Laszewski 9). Assists: UIC 8 (Ottey 3); Notre Dame 10 (Gibbs 3). Turnovers: UIC 13; Notre Dame 16. Attendance: 6,462.