Noie: Look beyond lopsided final to see what Notre Dame did well in exhibition opener

Tom Noie
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND — When the leaves have not yet turned or even tumbled and the air temperature is nowhere near wind chill factors, it’s not time to make definitive declarations about a college basketball team. 

Not even after one (Notre Dame) runs off 18 straight points to open exhibition play, or gets a little something from everybody to push toward a 40-point lead before intermission. 

The Irish rolled to an 87-37 victory over Nazareth (New York) College, a Division III team, Friday at Purcell Pavilion. It wasn’t even that close. In the greater scheme of just about everything, this game means nothing. Maybe less than that. But if you look a little closer, drill down and understand where this program was in March — when it trailed by 50 points in its final game — it was a good place to start for a group that has big plans on going places. 

Notre Dame freshman guard Blake Wesley didn't look like a freshman in the Irish exhibition opener.

“It’s good to see everybody sitting on the same bench and get a feel for it,” said Irish coach Mike Brey. 

There was plenty to feel. Like how graduate transfer power forward Paul Atkinson established himself early and often in the post, which led to 15 points and 10 rebounds in his first game in 20 months. Or when the Irish defense, a major rebuild project in the offseason, locked in early to force the other guys to miss their first 10 shots. 

“I was happy to be back on the court,” Atkinson said. “It was fun. It was a fun first game back.” 

And a fun first game overall for freshman Blake Wesley, the first Irish off the bench. He looked nothing like a freshman in his opening minutes debut. Those included a degree-of-difficulty, double-clutch shot in the lane for his first hoop on his first attempt. He later played the passing lane for a steal, a runout and a swoop-in tomahawk dunk. 

Word about Wesley in preseason was that he was pushing hard and fast and confidently toward a big role. Maybe, eventually, a starting one. We saw a lot of why on Friday. Less than halfway through the first half, he already was running the Irish offense as the point guard. 

It was no accident to give the freshman that much that early. 

“He just really feels he belongs,” Brey said. “He just is so confident. It started Day One in summer school.” 

Not to be outdone, fellow freshman and area native J.R. Konieczny made his first shot coming in in a reserve role. And, like his South Bend buddy, he also played the passing lane, gathered a steal and soared in for a dunk. Konieczny was referred to simply as “JR” in the stat broadcast box score. Nice. 

Brey has never watched his Irish lose an exhibition in his 22 seasons. They weren’t going to lose this one. That was obvious at, oh, about the 18-minute mark of the first half. 

A year ago, while wearing a mask on the sideline in a near-empty arena, it was hard to hear Brey offering his thoughts on anything from the sideline. On Friday, with no mask and more than a few fans back in the stands, you still could hear Brey bark “great play” or “great offense” or “talk in it” or “yes, sir, Blake” at the appropriate times. 

That’s how the first half went – a lot of lineup combinations (10) for the Irish, a lot of buckets, a lot of stops and a lot of points. 

“I liked that we stuck to our (defensive) principles,” Atkinson said. “We stuck to what we wanted to do, that was drilled to us in practice the last five months.” 

And that was to guard. To get into guys. To gang rebound. Defensive rebounding? Still gotta get better there. Seldom did the other guys get comfortable around their bucket. By the end of the first 20, the Irish were up by 36. Felt like 76. 

Haven’t typed that kind of a line in way too long. It’s happened occasionally in exhibitions and once in a while against an overmatched non-league opponent. Hasn’t happened much the last four years. Heck, last time before Friday that the Irish were on the basketball court, they would’ve taken a 36-point deficit after trailing North Carolina by 52 in an Atlantic Coast Conference tournament game back in March. 

That big lead was a big deal. It was the first of hopefully many signs that these Irish can be cruel and step on the collective necks of an opponent when they have as off a night as the Golden Flyers had the first 20. 

“It’s hard sometimes when you’ve got younger guys who think when you’re blowing out a team that they just want to have fun,” Atkinson said. “We did a really good job of making sure we kept playing how we wanted to play throughout the whole game no matter what the score was.” 

By halftime, one group of weary-looking fans wandered through Heritage Hall wondering what direction the Morris Inn was from the arena. They obviously had other plans than a second half of basketball. 

Other than a big lead become a really big lead, we saw a lot in the first half that we seldom saw last year. Like Atkinson working near the hoop offering a 360-degree spin before another lay-in. He looked a lot like Luke Harangody, the No. 2 scorer in program history who was in attendance. Didn’t see that from an Irish big last season. Or Wesley’s open-court steal and dunk. Haven’t seen that kind of athleticism around these parts since the days of Demetrius Jackson.

It all allowed for early optimism.

Nazareth coach Kevin Broderick burned through timeouts in the first half like they were Halloween candy. Think Tootsie Rolls. Or Starbursts. It was a like he couldn’t get enough of them, but that’s what happens when you watch your club shoot 23.3 percent from the field and miss all 11 attempts from 3 that half. 

The second half? Nothing more than a pickup game with a clock. Might see better ball in your local church league. Look up from your tub of popcorn and you’d see Nate Laszewski finishing a no-look pass from Prentiss Hubb with a one-hand dunk or Atkinson dropping in another two off a feed from Cormac Ryan. Notre Dame played without guards Trey Wertz (sprained ankle) and Robby Carmody (knee). They weren’t needed. Wertz is expected back for the second exhibition next week. Carmody may never make it back from lingering knee/injury issues. 

Hopefully, next week is a little bit more competitive than this one. At least, for a few more minutes. 

NOTRE DAME 87, NAZARETH 37 

At Purcell Pavilion 

NAZARETH (37): Brendan Broderick 3; Hunter Johnson 2; Stephen Gabel 6; Kevin Underwood 9; Jordan Haggard 3; Zach Stenglein 6; Jonathan Park 8. Totals: 15 4-6 37. 

NOTRE DAME (87): Nate Laszewski 11; Paul Atkinson 15; Dane Goodwin 13; Cormac Ryan 16; Prentiss Hubb 12; Blake Wesley 11; J.R. Konieczny 4; Tony Sanders 0; Elijah Taylor 1; Matt Zona 2; Elijah Morgan 0; Alex Wade 0. Totals: 34 7-8 897. 

Halftime score: Notre Dame 49, Nazareth 13. Field goal shooting: Nazareth 15-for-65 (23 percent); Notre Dame 34-for-70 (48.5). 3-point field goals: Nazareth 3-for-28 (Gabel, Haggard, B. Broderick); Notre Dame 12-for-32 (Hubb 4, Ryan 4, Goodwin 2, Laszewski, Atkinson). Rebounds: Nazareth 35 (Park 9); Notre Dame 51 (Atkinson 10). Assists: Nazareth 9 (Underwood 3); Notre Dame 18 (Hubb 7). Total fouls (fouled out): Nazareth 12 (none); Notre Dame 5 (none). Turnovers: Nazareth 13, Notre Dame 8. Officials: Tony Henderson, Brent Hampton, Greg Evans. Attendance: 5,039. 

Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI