WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Live on the edge of anything long and enough and you’re eventually going to tumble off.
On Saturday against the 14th-place team in the Atlantic Coast Conference, in another league game it absolutely had to have, Notre Dame tumbled off.
It was too much Olivier Sarr and not enough made shots for the Irish, who needed this one to keep alive their dim NCAA tournament hopes. They didn’t get it after Sarr went for 30 points and 17 rebounds in an 84-73 Wake victory at Joel Coliseum.
“We had no answers for the big fella tonight,” Irish coach Mike Brey said. “He is so gifted. We couldn’t guard him one-on-one. We tried a little bit of everything.”
Nothing really worked. Sophomore Nate Laszewski tried and, in Brey’s eyes, was the team’s best post defender Saturday. Senior power forwards Juwan Durham and John Mooney struggled. Mightily.
“Our senior big guys couldn’t guard anybody tonight,” Brey said. “I love them to death, but they didn’t play any defense.”
Having won three in a row and seven of nine, Notre Dame fell to 18-11, 9-9 in the ACC. Short of winning the conference tournament, Notre Dame will miss the NCAA tournament a third straight season.
Coming off a victory earlier in the week against No. 7 Duke, Wake Forest (13-15; 6-12) won consecutive league games for the first time in three seasons. The Demon Deacons finish 5-5 at home in league play.
Mooney led the Irish with 24 points and 17 rebounds. Laszewski added 15 points off the bench. T.J. Gibbs had 11 and Dane Goodwin 10.
The Irish closed within two, 70-68, following a Mooney 3 with 3:30 left. But just when it looked like they were in position to grab the lead, the deficit fell back to seven after five unanswered from Wake. The Irish offense just bogged down, sputtered, then stopped at the worst possible time. Winning time.
Wake led by as many as a dozen in the closing minute.
Notre Dame shot 40 percent from the field, 27.3 percent from 3. Brey likes to say that for his team to have any chance to win league games, it has to make at least 10 3-pointers. The Irish made only six Saturday. They led for all of 2:21. The Irish also missed nine free throws, eight in the second half.
“Big free throws,” Brey said. “That hurt us.”
Both teams finished with 26 points in the paint.
Notre Dame’s mixing of zone defenses — some 1-3-1, back into a 2-3 — gave Wake a whole lot of problems at times. The Irish were active, and vocal, in holding Wake to a lot of one-and-done possessions.
“That got us back in it,” Brey said of the zone. “But then they made three timely 3s that kind of broke our backs.”
Wednesday featured a big helping of Mooney early against Boston College. It was more of the same Saturday. Mooney scored the first six Irish points and was in double figures less than eight minutes in. He was the only offensive option for stretches as the Irish trailed early by six.
Mooney secured his 24th double double of the season and 45th of his career before halftime.
Twenty-nine games into the season, Brey shuffled his tight rotation, choosing to go early with senior guard Nik Djogo over Goodwin, who had been touted earlier in the month as a possible sixth man of the year in the ACC. Goodwin was in by the second media timeout. Message sent. He was pretty good the rest of the way.
Brey also subbed out both of his big men — rare in the back end of the schedule — to basically play five out and nobody in trying to kick-start the Irish offense. Defensively, the Irish had no answer for Sarr, who scored 10 early points and had his way in the paint.
A 7-0 Wake run allowed the home team to stretch its first half lead to as many as nine. Another Sarr bucket pushed the Irish deficit into double digits with just over six minutes remaining. A Brown layup made it 13 before a corner 3 from Goodwin. It was Notre Dame’s first 3 after missing its first eight.
The Irish rotation changed again to start the second half. Laszewski started in place of Durham. Why go smaller when a Deacon big was doing as he pleased? Brey likely figured the Irish would have to outscore the home team to have any chance.
It was too much Sarr and too little else for the Irish in the first half. They led for all of 71 seconds and trailed by as many as 16 before being saddled with an 11-point deficit at half. Notre Dame trailed by seven at the break earlier in the week at Boston College.
Notre Dame shot 32.4 percent from the field, 23.1 percent from 3 in a forgettable first half. On a day the Irish offense really had to have it, it didn’t. And it didn’t almost from the start.
The Irish traveling party had to be in North Carolina since Thursday after flying from New England following a 62-61 last-second victory over Boston College. Saturday was the fourth visit to the Tar Heel state this season for Notre Dame, which was 0-3 in previous stops in Chapel Hill (North Carolina) Durham (Duke) and Raleigh (North Carolina State). Notre Dame returns later in March for the ACC tournament, which will be held in Greensboro, about 45 minutes east of Winston-Salem.
Saturday was the final league road game of the season for Notre Dame, which finished 4-6 away from home after going 1-8 last season. The Irish wrap the regular season with a pair of home games next week — Wednesday against No. 6 Florida State and Saturday on Senior Day against Virginia Tech.
NOTRE DAME (73): Durham 1-4 1-2 3, Mooney 10-22 2-5 24, Gibbs 4-11 2-3 11, Hubb 4-10 0-0 9, Pflueger 0-1 1-2 1, Laszewski 4-10 6-8 15, Goodwin 3-7 3-4 10, Djogo 0-0 0-0 0, Morgan 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 26-65 15-24 73.
WAKE FOREST (84): Mucius 4-11 0-0 8, Sarr 12-16 6-7 30, Brown 4-10 5-6 15, Childress 4-7 3-4 14, White 1-6 4-4 7, Neath 1-4 2-2 4, Massoud 1-2 0-0 3, Oguama 0-2 3-4 3, Wright 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 27-58 23-27 84.
Halftime_Wake Forest 41-30. 3-Point Goals_Notre Dame 6-22 (Mooney 2-6, Goodwin 1-3, Hubb 1-3, Gibbs 1-4, Laszewski 1-5, Pflueger 0-1), Wake Forest 7-15 (Childress 3-5, Brown 2-4, Massoud 1-1, White 1-5). Rebounds_Notre Dame 30 (Mooney 17), Wake Forest 41 (Sarr 17). Assists_Notre Dame 13 (Hubb 4), Wake Forest 18 (Childress 6). Total Fouls_Notre Dame 20, Wake Forest 16. A_8,870 (14,665).