Wake Forest ends Notre Dame's misery

TOM NOIE
South Bend Tribune

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GREENSBORO, N.C. — They talked earlier in the week of sticking around their first ACC Tournament for more than just a quick taste of southern hospitality by being better in two areas — defense and rebounding.

But when it really mattered, they couldn’t even be average during 40 often forgettable minutes Wednesday in the first game of the tournament at Greensboro Coliseum.

Staggered by sizzling shooting and rocked by an inability to rebound even when the ball was there for the taking, No. 13 seed Notre Dame went quietly, 81-69, to No. 12 Wake Forest.

“Looking back on the season, this game kind of embodied it,” said three-time Irish captain Eric Atkins. “We just couldn’t get enough stops to stay in the game. That’s kind of how the season has gone for us.”

Why? Why couldn’t the Irish ever be better in those areas when they knew they had to be better? Even when they could have been average, they routinely offered something below average.

“It hasn’t been good enough,” said senior Garrick Sherman. “And today it wasn’t good enough again, and that’s what you get. When you don’t rebound and you don’t play well enough to keep people in front of you, you lose games.”

Notre Dame was 1-9 in league games in which it was outrebounded. On Wednesday, the Demon Deacons won the battle on the boards, 33-23.

For Wake Forest, it was the first league tournament victory since 2007. Coron Williams led the Deacons (17-15) with a career-high 25 points.

“Guys were able to find me, and I was able to knock down a few shots to kind of get a flow going,” Williams said. “If you don’t come out there and play your hardest, you can be done for the year. For me, it’s going to be my career, so I want to keep on playing.”

When it was over, and the Irish had lost for a third-straight time and the fifth time in their final six games, coach Mike Brey confirmed that there is no tomorrow for this team. Notre Dame will not seek any avenue for postseason play. There was a chance — however slim — that the Irish (15-17) could have competed in the postseason with a losing record. But they won’t.

It’s over. Over three days before Selection Sunday. Over for the rest of March. Over until the all-important summer tour of Italy in August. Over earlier than it’s ever been for a program that had gone to some sort of postseason every season since 1998-99, also the last time the Irish limped away with a losing record.

Over.

“It’s still weird,” Atkins said. “I don’t think it’s hit yet.”

Brey, in a way, is glad to be done with this season for myriad reasons. He’ll be on the road recruiting before the weekend arrives.

“It’s probably good we end this saga,” Brey said.

Once this season went sideways in late December following the departure of leading scorer Jerian Grant for academic reasons, Atkins needed to be really good, and often great, for the Irish to have any chance. In his last game, Atkins was just OK.

Dumped into early foul trouble — he picked up two in the first 7:14, then was saddled with his third 4:46 before half — Atkins never got on track. He didn’t score until getting a runner to fall with just over 12 minutes remaining in the game. He finished with 13 points and seven assists but never looked or played like himself.

Brey admitted the foul trouble had Atkins and the Irish “a little wacky.”

His teammates followed. There were brief bursts of positives — Zach Auguste (14 points, nine rebounds), Demetrius Jackson (six points in 20 minutes) — but nothing that forced anyone in a white jersey to get overly concerned that the guys in the spiffy black uniforms (specially made by adidas for postseason but already set to be packed away) were going to be a challenge.

Brey subbed Atkins out for the final time in the closing 30 seconds, and then stood with him in front of the bench to share a few words.

“He said it was an honor to coach me and that I had a great four years,” said Atkins, who closed his collegiate career with 1,421 points and 589 assists in 133 games.

Confident that it could compete with a Wake Forest team that it lost to by seven points in Winston-Salem, N.C., earlier this season, Notre Dame really was never in it. Oh, the Irish showed some early energy and received some good low-post play from Sherman, who had missed the previous game eight days ago against North Carolina, but it really meant little.

An Auguste bucket gave the Irish an 8-7 lead with 16:08 remaining in the first half. Twenty-three seconds later, Williams stuck a corner 3 to give the Deacons a lead they caressed the rest of the afternoon.

The Irish trailed for the final 35:45.

Notre Dame was down by 13 in the first half and by 14 in the second simply because it couldn’t do anything close to what it planned to do in an effort to play another day — rebound and defend. One open shot led to two and three and four more for the Deacons, who were even able to rebound missed free throws to maintain possessions.

After shooting 56 percent in the first half, Wake was even better in the second and connected on 68.8 percent. The Deacons attempted 16 shots in the final 20 minutes. They made 11. They also made four of their five 3s, including two crushers from freshman guard Miles Overton, which basically signaled the beginning of the Irish end.

Both were painfully open looks.

“We didn’t make them take tough shots,” said junior captain Pat Connaughton. “A lot of their shots were high-percentage shots and the odds say those, for the most part, are going to go in, and that’s what happened.”

Able to muster a few defensive stops, create some turnovers and get in some semblance of an offensive rhythm early in the second half, the Irish shaved what had been an 11-point deficit to five and was looking for more.

On the wing in transition, Connaughton had a clean look at a 3 off a dump pass from Atkins. The offering fell halfway down, but jumped out. Overton hit a 3 on the other end and what could have been a two-point game was back to eight.

It got to nine on another Overton 3. Just over five minutes later, the Irish were back scrambling and down 14.

Game over.

Why?

Defense.

Rebounding.

“We did a horrible job there,” Brey said, “and our season is over because of it.”

TNoie@SBTinfo.com | 574-235-6153 | Twitter: TNoie@NDInsider

Notre Dame's Pat Connaughton, right, looks to move around Wake Forest's Travis McKie during the first round of the ACC men's basketball tournament on Wednesday. The Irish lost, 81-69, at the Greensboro Coliseum. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)
Notre Dame's Garrick Sherman (11) moves by Wake Forest's Arnaud William Adala Moto during the first round of the ACC men's basketball tournament on Wednesday, March 12, 2014, at the Greensboro Coliseum in Greensboro, N.C. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN
Notre Dame's Steve Vasturia (32) drives by Wake Forest's Coron Williams during the first round of the ACC men's basketball tournament on Wednesday, March 12, 2014, at the Greensboro Coliseum in Greensboro, N.C. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN
Notre Dame's Zach Auguste, right, competes for a rebound with Wake Forest's Devin Thomas (2) during the first round of the ACC men's basketball tournament on Wednesday, March 12, 2014, at the Greensboro Coliseum in Greensboro, N.C. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN

NOTRE DAME (15-17): Zach Auguste 6-9 2-4 14, Garrick Sherman 5-13 2-3 12, Eric Atkins 3-10 6-6 13, Pat Connaughton 7-11 2-2 19, Steve Vasturia 1-7 2-2 5, V.J. Beachem 0-0 0-0 0, Austin Burgett 0-3 0-0 0, Demetrius Jackson 2-7 1-2 6, Tom Knight 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 24-60 15-19 69.

WAKE FOREST (17-15): Devin Thomas 5-9 9-13 19, Travis McKie 1-5 2-2 4, Arnaud William Adala Moto 4-4 4-4 12, Codi Miller-McIntyre 2-7 1-3 5, Coron Williams 7-8 7-8 25, Madison Jones 1-1 0-0 2, Miles Overton 3-4 0-0 8, Aaron Rountree III 1-1 0-0 3, Tyler Cavanaugh 1-2 1-2 3. Totals 25-41 24-32 81.

Halftime — Wake Forest 37-29. 3-Point Goals — Notre Dame 6-20 (Connaughton 3-5, Atkins 1-4, Vasturia 1-4, Jackson 1-5, Burgett 0-2), Wake Forest 7-10 (Williams 4-5, Overton 2-3, Rountree III 1-1, McKie 0-1). Fouled Out — None. Rebounds — Notre Dame 23 (Auguste 9), Wake Forest 33 (Thomas 10). Assists — Notre Dame 15 (Atkins 7), Wake For-est 14 (Miller-McIntyre 6). Total Fouls — Notre Dame 24, Wake Forest 17. A — NA.