Super senior Trey Wertz delivers big effort as Notre Dame sidesteps Radford
SOUTH BEND — Three (relatively) quick thoughts and other news and notes and anecdotes following Thursday’s men’s basketball game between Radford and Notre Dame, won by Notre Dame, 79-76, in front of 4,698 at Purcell Pavilion.
∎ A text message from the head coach may have finally nudged super senior guard Trey Wertz into more of a role as a main guy.
With fellow fifth-year guard Marcus Hammond sidelined by a knee injury, Wertz was set to move from sixth man into the starting lineup for Thursday’s opener. Irish coach Mike Brey texted Wertz earlier in the week, saying that even with Hammond down, not to relinquish the starting spot. To believe that the spot was his, so go and own it. Play like he does belong as a starter.
“I said, 'Trey, don’t give the position back,'” Brey said. “Like, take it. He dang sure put an exclamation point on it.”
Brey now considers the Big Three of Dane Goodwin, Nate Laszewski, and Cormac Ryan to be a Big Four with Wertz. All four are captains. All four are main guys. We saw it from Wertz on Thursday.
“I worked really hard all summer,” Wertz said. “And just kind of let my skills show.”
Wertz scored 18 points with four assists, three rebounds and two steals in 36 minutes. He hit two must-have 3-pointers on consecutive possessions to keep the Irish believing in the second half, then had enough presence of the moment to push a late fast break and find Ryan for the go-ahead (winning) basket with 9.7 seconds remaining.
“I got a couple easy layups early and hit my first one,” Wertz said. “From there, everything felt good for me tonight. I didn’t want to force it. Just let it come to me.”
It was arguably Wertz’s best game at Notre Dame since his second when he scored his Irish career high 27 points against Purdue in 2020. Wertz will remain a starter in the short term — at least through next week. And, maybe, long term, especially if he delivers like he did Thursday.
“He is a calming presence with the ball,” Brey said.
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∎ Notre Dame looked for stretches Thursday like a team that had put a little too much emphasis on the offensive end during summer and preseason camp and forgot about doing anything constructive on the other end.
Defensively, the Irish were disheveled, at best. They were beaten time and again off the dribble by quicker guys. In the open court, through the lane, to the basket and on the backboard. Even on the perimeter when it looked like the Irish had good positioning, the Highlanders kept hitting tough shot after tough shot and it almost got them the game.
Notre Dame tried a little of everything — some man-to-man, some 2/3 and even some 1-3-1 to try and throw the visitors off their rhythm.
Radford shot 46.2 percent from the field, 40 percent from 3. It also gashed the Irish defense with 36 points in the paint. After exhaling and getting out with the win, the message Friday and moving forward for the Irish rests a lot on the defensive end.
“We can get better in some areas,” Brey said.
Defensively, it’s all areas that need work/improvement. Guarding guys. Helping. Switching. Rebounding. Finishing possessions. Radford had Notre Dame on its collective heels most of the night.
“They got to us; they got to our paint,” Brey said. “I think we got it straight the four minutes to get enough stops. We just switched everything.”
∎ On Wednesday, Brey jokingly recited the six schools — the six mid-majors — who have come through Purcell Pavilion and beaten Notre Dame during his 23-year tenure. He remembers each one of them.
He remembers 2003 and Central Michigan. He remembers Loyola Marymount in 2009. Indiana State and North Dakota State both did Notre Dame dirty in 2013. There was Ball State in 2017 and Radford in 2018.
Only Radford has returned since winning. This one was by design. Of course, when Notre Dame was down for most of the second half, Brey had to wonder what the #$%#@ he was thinking scheduling the Highlanders again.
“Pat Rogers, I think was hiding under the press table,” Brey said of his director of basketball operations, who handles scheduling. “But we wanted to play teams that have a chance to win their league. These guys can.”
As can Youngstown State, Sunday’s opponent. Hard games are good — for your team’s experience and eventual NCAA tournament résumé — just as long as you win.
“Be careful what you wish for,” Brey said. “It gets you ready for ACC play. Yeah, I get all that, but it was more the math of strength of schedule. Escape.”
As for a third trip to Notre Dame for Radford sometime down the line? Don’t count on it.
“Radford will never come back in my tenure,” Brey said afterward.
He was joking. But serious.
A decision was reached this week between Brey and sophomore swingman J.R. Konieczny that the former South Bend Saint Joseph standout will take a healthy redshirt this season to preserve a year of eligibility.
Konieczny, who still could play at any time if needed, will have three years of eligibility remaining if he sits out the entire season.
“It’s just hard to get him in,” Brey said. “Why wouldn’t we think of him as a three-year starter instead of a two-year starter (which he’d be if he played even a minimal role this year).”
Konieczny acknowledged to the Tribune in an interview late last month that he was all for going the five-year route and sitting out this season. He played 22 total minutes over seven games last season. He played 1:42 in last week’s exhibition. Playing time this year in an already crowded backcourt wasn’t guaranteed. That changes next season. Maybe, a lot.
“If you do the math and look at our roster, you should be drooling in a year,” Brey said. “The door swings completely open.”
Konieczny is the first Irish player to take a healthy redshirt and sit out since former Irish guard Nikola Djogo sat his freshman year in 2016-17.
Two hours before Thursday’s tip, Konieczny was in his practice gear and on the court working on his game with associate head coach Anthony Solomon and assistant coach Hamlet Tibbs. He’ll be in Slo’s lab from now until next year.
“There’s a couple times under 10 minutes when you don’t think so, but our veteran guys just kind of made us believe enough to get out.”
-Brey after watching his team erase a nine-point deficit with 10:10 remaining.
By the numbers
∎ 3:37: Total bench minutes for the Irish in the second half, all played by freshman Ven-Allen Lubin.
∎ 4: When freshman guard J.J. Starling was announced Thursday night as a starter, he became the fourth true freshman to start a season opener during Brey’s tenure. He’s the first to do it since super senior guard Robby Carmody started his first game as a freshman in 2018 against Illinois Chicago. Others to do it under Brey are Chris Thomas (2001) and Torin Francis (2003).
∎ 6: Number of Irish who played in a first half that saw the home team trail by as many as six and lead by as many as seven.
∎ 8: Number of available scholarship players for the Irish on Thursday with Carmody (knee), Hammond (knee), and Tony Sanders (ankle) missing because of injury and Konieczny taking a redshirt season.
∎9: Consecutive points scored by Laszewski to start the game.
∎11/10: Number of assists to turnovers for the Irish, who have to be a lot better than that in both categories this season.
∎15: Notre Dame was the last ACC team to open its regular season. That was somewhat by design — the Irish men’s and women’s programs annual rotate what team gets the first possible home date for a regular season game. This year, the Irish women opened on the first available date.
∎ 23: Consecutive home openers won by Notre Dame under Brey, now in his 23rd season. The Irish haven't lost a home opener since 1998.
∎ 28: Points scored by Laszewski, which tied his career high. The super senior also grabbed a game-high 12 rebounds.
∎29:19: Amount of time Notre Dame trailed to Radford.
∎ 84: Percentage Notre Dame shot from the free throw line (21-for-25), including 88.9 percent (16-of-18) in the second half.
It’s coming quickly for Notre Dame, which opens the regular season with four games in nine days. Next is a home game Sunday (4 p.m., Marquee Sports Network) against Youngstown State, which opened the season Wednesday with a 90-72 home victory over Tennessee-Martin.
BOX SCORE: Notre Dame 79, Radford 76
RADFORD (0-2): Jules 2-4 1-2 5, Antoine 0-4 0-0 0, Ezeakudo 2-3 0-0 5, Jeffers 6-15 0-0 13, Smith 7-16 2-3 18, Giles 7-15 2-3 20, Niang 3-4 3-4 9, Archer 3-3 0-0 6, Koureissi 0-0 0-0 0, Yamazaki 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 30-65 8-12 76.
NOTRE DAME (1-0): Laszewski 7-11 12-15 28, Goodwin 1-8 6-6 8, Ryan 4-9 2-2 10, Starling 3-7 1-2 9, Wertz 7-9 0-0 18, Lubin 3-4 0-0 6. Totals 25-48 21-25 79.
Halftime—Notre Dame 40-39. 3-Point Goals—Radford 8-20 (Giles 4-7, Smith 2-6, Ezeakudo 1-2, Jeffers 1-2, Antoine 0-3), Notre Dame 8-22 (Wertz 4-5, Starling 2-4, Laszewski 2-5, Lubin 0-1, Goodwin 0-2, Ryan 0-5). Fouled Out—Ezeakudo. Rebounds_Radford 28 (Jules 8), Notre Dame 31 (Laszewski 12). Assists—Radford 12 (Jeffers 5), Notre Dame 11 (Wertz 4). Total Fouls—Radford 21, Notre Dame 15. A—4,698 (9,149).
Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI. Contact: (574) 235-6153.