Noie: Whoa! A Trey Wertz buzzer beater gives Notre Dame another ACC tourney win

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Trailing a teammate down the floor in a tie game and time about ready to run out, Notre Dame guard Trey Wertz offered two words.

“Behind you!”

“Behind you!”

Had this been a normal Atlantic Coast Conference tournament first-round game tucked inside a normal college basketball season, there would have been too many fans in the Greensboro (N.C.) Coliseum stands for fellow guard Cormac Ryan to likely hear Wertz. It would’ve been too loud, too frenetic. But the limited crowd made the big box of a building seem really empty and not all that noisy, even with more Wake Forest fans scattered around the seating bowl.

So Ryan heard Wertz to his right. Heard him clearly.

Ryan shoveled the ball to Wertz with just enough time on the clock to do what he did Tuesday. Wertz delivered the night’s biggest shot — a 3-pointer from the deep right wing — as the clock hit all zeroes and the backboard light went red shortly after his rise and release. When the shot fell, so did Wake Forest as Notre Dame completed a comeback after trailing by as many as 16 points for an 80-77 victory.

The win pushed No. 11 seed Notre Dame (11-14) into the tournament’s second round late Wednesday against No. 6 North Carolina (16-9).

That it was Wertz doing work at the end was fitting. He started the regular season not even eligible after transferring from Santa Clara. He then closed the tournament's opening night with the program's biggest bucket since guard Rex Pflueger's tip-in in the closing seconds of the 2016 NCAA tournament second-round game against Stephen F. Austin.

“When he rose up to take it, I’m thinking, this could be an unbelievable story,” said Irish coach Mike Brey. “When Trey let it go, I said, 'We're going to win.' He's a confident kid."

Few could’ve scripted this one any better for Wertz, a North Carolina native playing in his first ACC tournament game. As a kid who grew up in Charlotte, Wertz made many trips to Greensboro Coliseum for ACC tournaments. He’d sit in the stands and wonder what it might be like one day if he were good enough and fortunate enough to play in the tournament. Heck, he maybe even dreamed one day of hitting a game-winner as time expired, with his parents in the stands as they were Tuesday to watch their son in person for one of the few times this season.

Wertz may have dreamed it, but live it? No way. That wasn’t possible, was it? Not in the first game he’d ever play on that floor. In that tournament.

“It’s just really surreal,” Wertz said. “It’s a dream come true. As a little kid, you dream to play in the ACC. I couldn’t ask for anything better.”

Wertz finished with 16 points. Ryan added 14. The Irish led for all of 86 seconds. For the first 32-plus minutes, Notre Dame did nothing well enough to deserve to win this one. Nothing. It didn't defend. It didn't rebound. It didn't compete. The Irish were likely headed home after getting their hats handed to them by a team that finished in second-to-last place. In a season filled with bitter pills, this would be the toughest to swallow.

So the Irish had to figure out a way to steal it. So they stole it. Flat-out robbery. Snatched it right away from a team that did so much right for much of the night, but not when it mattered.

Nothing at the end would’ve been possible had it not been for Ryan, who limped back to the locker room with 8:16 left with a left hip injury. Ryan returned and seemingly gutted his way through the lingering pain the final few minutes.

“Adrenaline was rushing,” Ryan said. “I knew I had to get back in there for the guys and made it happen.”

Ryan owned the last sequence. Owned it. And the Irish don’t live to play another night without him.

“He deserves it,” Brey said.

With five seconds remaining, Ryan wrestled away momentum and swagger and everything else from the other Demon Deacon guards, be it Carter Whitt or Daivien Williamson, both of whom outplayed the Irish perimeter guys for much of the night. With four seconds remaining, Ryan stayed true to his defensive principles — something that was difficult for the Irish to do much of the game. He stayed strong with his base and blocked a Williamson jumper at the free throw line. He corralled the defensive rebound, pushed it up the floor, and then delivered to Wertz.

He didn't panic. He stayed poised. He just played.

“We were guarding down the stretch,” Ryan said. “We had great team energy. I was feeding off the guys, honestly.”

Wertz’s momentum kept carrying him to the right after he released his shot, so he had the look of someone who knew it was money.

“As soon as I let it go, I kind of knew it was in,” said Wertz, who last hit a buzzer-beating winner on a layup last year while at Santa Clara. “I ran straight to (Ryan) to thank him for the pass.”

Finishing it off

In similar late-clock situations this season — and from basically the same spots on the floor (the right one) — against North Carolina and Georgia Tech, Ryan had the ball in his hands in a close game, but didn't make the winning play. He made it Tuesday. As soon as he dished to Wertz, he knew this one was over. Ball game.

“We knew it was good,” Ryan said. “We were walking off the court already.”

That the Irish had a chance at the end is almost as surreal as Wertz’s game winner. Notre Dame looked done, finished, defeated, beaten for much of the game. The Irish trailed by double digits less than seven minutes in to a team it beat by 21 points last month. They were down 16 with 16:26 remaining, and still down 12 with 7:17 remaining.

“We’ve got hungry guys in this locker room and we’ve got a bunch of fighters,” Ryan said. “We weren’t going to go down without a fight. That’s exactly what we did. We fought back and got it done.”

Three minutes earlier, at about the halfway point of the second half, Brey didn’t so much talk with his team as he issued the ultimate ultimatum. Going smaller, the five on the floor better compete. There was no other option. And how they competed would have a big bearing on the offseason, then preseason, then next season. In some ways, they were auditioning right then and there for their basketball lives — present and future. Do it at that moment, or there might be a different group given the opportunity when the opportunity arrived sometime next season.

“So how are you going to play it?” Brey wondered. “Show me how you’re going to play it, ‘cause I’m really interested.”

How did they play it?

“We hung on in there,” Brey said. “It’s a group that showed a lot of character. I know we don’t have a (heck) of a lot of wins to show for it, but this group has kind of hung in there together. I’m proud of the response.”

From down 12 with seven and change remaining, Notre Dame was able to string together the necessary stops to close on a 17-2 run. When Wertz’s shot fell, Notre Dame had won at least one ACC tournament game for a seventh straight season. They may not have much left in their effort tanks Wednesday for the Tar Heels, but for one night, all the pent-up emotion from the challenge of this season flowed.

To win a game that few gave them a chance at winning was all right with them, no matter how fleeting the moment would feel. The Irish won an ACC tournament game, but then again, they always win at least one ACC tournament game. That counts for something.

“What we do in the ACC tournament is kind of amazing, quite frankly,” said Brey, whose program has won 11 tournament games over eight ACC seasons. “We kind of feel we should play well in this thing. If you can win the first one, which we've done many times in the ACC, it kind of gives you hope."

So does a big comeback, and a bigger shot.

• NOTRE DAME 80, WAKE FOREST 77

At Greensboro, N.C.

First Round

WAKE FOREST (77): Mucius 6-19 7-8 20, Oguama 1-4 3-4 5, DuBose 3-7 0-0 8, Whitt 5-12 0-0 12, Williamson 8-11 0-0 21, Massoud 3-11 1-2 9, Adams 1-2 0-0 2, Antonio 0-2 0-0 0, Johnson 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 27-68 11-14 77.

NOTRE DAME (80): Durham 6-9 4-4 16, Laszewski 1-6 0-0 2, Djogo 3-5 0-0 9, Hubb 5-15 2-2 14, Wertz 5-6 2-2 16, Ryan 6-10 0-1 14, Goodwin 4-7 0-0 9. Totals 30-58 8-9 80.

Halftime_Wake Forest 44-37. 3-Point Goals_Wake Forest 12-27 (Williamson 5-5, DuBose 2-4, Whitt 2-5, Massoud 2-7, Mucius 1-5, Antonio 0-1), Notre Dame 12-26 (Wertz 4-5, Djogo 3-5, Ryan 2-4, Hubb 2-7, Goodwin 1-2, Laszewski 0-3). Rebounds_Wake Forest 33 (Mucius 12), Notre Dame 30 (Durham 10). Assists_Wake Forest 14 (Whitt 7), Notre Dame 15 (Hubb 4). Total Fouls_Wake Forest 13, Notre Dame 12. A_2,820 (23,500).

Notre Dame guard Trey Wertz (2), who sank the game-winning shot, is swarmed by teammates after their 80-77 win over Wake Forest in the first round of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament in Greensboro, N.C.