Men's Basketball: Sometimes the other team, the home team, is just better. It happens

Tom Noie
ND Insider
Feb 19, 2022; Winston-Salem, North Carolina, USA; Wake Forest Demon Deacons guard Alondes Williams (31) drives to the basket against Notre Dame Fighting Irish forward Nate Laszewski (14) during the first half at Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

This one delivered.

Big shots, big moments, big drama. Yeah, it was a big deal.

Two of the top five teams in the Atlantic Coast Conference gave us a glimpse of some March-level basketball Saturday at Joel Coliseum in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

If this were March, Wake Forest would be moving on and Notre Dame would be going home.

The Irish made enough shots, but needed to make a few more in a 79-74 loss. A five-game league win streak snapped, Notre Dame is 19-8, 12-4 in the ACC. It was the first Irish league road loss since Jan. 15.

And that's OK. Really. Notre Dame could've rebounded better, could've shot it better, could've run better offense and been better in avoiding foul trouble, all issues that plagued the Irish in this one.

Notre Dame has been really good in other teams' gyms the last five weeks. A home team was just better on Saturday. Even when the visitors were up by 12 early. Even after four ties and 12 lead changes. Even after you thought the Irish would again do what it took to get this one.

It happens. You know what they say – can't win them all. Certainly, Notre Dame wasn't going to stay on its current run of only two losses over the previous 63 days.

The law of averages always wins. It won Saturday as well.

"No question," Brey said. "I'm thinking, 'this is going to be a hard one today.' The law of averages, the basketball Gods say if you get this one today, it's going to be one of the great steals.

"We emptied the tank, man."

Notre Dame had a chance to tie it in the closing seconds, but Cormac Ryan's corner 3 didn't fall. Blake Wesley led the Irish with 24 points.

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Two Ryan free throws pulled Notre Dame within two (72-70) with 1:48 remaining before the game stalled because of a game clock issue. Wake returned to go up by five with an Isaiah Mucius 3 before Ryan dropped in a key corner 3 to make it a two-point game with 66 seconds left.

On to another close game. On to game situations. It's where this Irish team usually has exceled for much of the last month. They just had to do it again. 

Wesley's two free throws made it a one-point game (69-68) with 3:24 left.

Wake Forest ran off six straight capped by an Alondes WIlliams two-handed dunk – everyone in blue just kind of forgot about him – to give the home team a 62-61 lead with 7:41 left. That forced Mike Brey to burn a timeout. The Irish had chances to extend their lead, but couldn’t make shots. They had guys taking shots in spots they shouldn’t be taking them. And not the right guys. 

That had to change down the stretch. It didn't. Notre Dame managed only one field goal - a Wesley 3 – the final 4:46.

"Their 'd' picked up," said Brey. "They're really good. I thought we were going to have to score 80 to get out of here. They're just too good offensively."

Same goes for Williams was a handful to deal with the final few minutes. He scored. He drove. He was good. League player of the year good in going for 23 points and 10 rebounds.

"He's everything he was advertised," Brey said. "We tried a little bit of everything and had no answers."

Notre Dame was outrebounded 43-27, in large part because of early foul trouble. In part because the Irish aren't the tallest guys around.

"People will continually come after us inside," Brey said.

Notre Dame led by six points at halftime and returned to make its first four shots of the second. It still found itself trailing 54-53 with 13:26 remaining – Wake's first lead since it was 25-24 with nine minutes remaining in the opening 20. 

That first Wake lead of the second half lasted all of 21 seconds. Prentiss Hubb dropped in a mid-range jumper, then held his index finger to his lips to quiet the crowd, before Wesley delivered a 3 to bump the Irish back up by four. But rebounding and allowing too many second-chance opportunities still remained an issue, for which the Irish didn’t have an answer. 

Heading into Saturday, it had been 35 days since the Irish last lost a league road game. Including that game at Virginia Tech, the average largest lead margin for the Irish in their six road games prior to Saturday had been 14 points. 

Of Notre Dame’s six road games since that night in Blacksburg, Virginia, it had led by double digits in each of them. The Irish did it again on Saturday. 

Feb 19, 2022; Winston-Salem, North Carolina, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish guard Dane Goodwin (23) runs up court against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons during the first half at Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

Saturday was the first time that Notre Dame played against a team with a winning league record since Feb. 2 at Miami (Fla.). The Hurricanes were in first place at that time, but the Irish won that one. 

Up by a dozen and humming late in the first half following runs of 18-4 and 17-4, Notre Dame lost some of its needed road edge the rest of the half. Wake Forest scored six unanswered, drew a third foul on Paul Atkinson, Jr., and got the game back within six at the break. 

"I just love our group," Brey said. "That was a great college game. Two really good teams going at it. We hung in there and kept making plays to give ourselves a chance. Just couldn't quite get our hands on enough first misses."

Wake did it by doing what Notre Dame did the other night at home against Boston College – building from the foul line. The Deacons were 11-for-11 from the free throw line the first half. The Irish were 4-of-5. 

Down by one after a 9-0 Wake Forest run, Notre Dame turned Wesley loose, and Wake had no answer. Wesley connected on a pair of 3s to give the Irish a five-point lead. That soon went to seven following a Wesley steal and layup, the first Irish non-3-point basket in 11 minutes. Wesley then delivered another steal before finding Hubb for a layup and a nine-point lead. 

Want more Wesley? He pushed the Irish advantage into double digits (yet again on the road) with a 3 that made it 39-29. It also forced another Wake timeout. 

"He is athletic marvel," Brey said of Wesley. "He is an absolute freak of nature."

Notre Dame led by as many as 12 and trailed by as many as six in the first half in which it led for 11:01. Wesley had a team-high 15 points and three steals in a first half that saw the Irish go 9-of-19 from 3. 

Notre Dame was outrebounded 26-13 in the first half. 

Playing against the size and length of Wake was an issue early for Notre Dame. Jake LaRavia busted loose for the first seven points, and Atkinson picked up two fouls the first 2:34. It looked like it was going to be one of those halves early for the Irish. 

Notre Dame settled down and started making shots. A lot of shots. A lot of 3-point shots. The Irish trailed by six at the first media timeout, then made six of seven, all from 3, to go up eight. A Nate Laszewski 3 capped an 18-4 burst and gave the Irish a 24-16 lead. 

Rebounding without Atkinson remained an issue and Wake started beating up Notre Dame on the backboard. At the under-8 media timeout, Wake held a 17-7 rebounding advantage. After getting good looks early, Wake’s best offense was a missed shot. Just go and get it off the glass and get it in the bucket. 

That made it really hard for the Irish to weather. 

Saturday was the first time the teams had met since a Trey Wertz 3 at the buzzer sent Wake Forest home from the second round of the ACC tournament last March. That was a game that left a sour taste in the mouths of the Deacons and coach Steve Forbes. Wake Forest dominated that night in Greensboro and led for 35:04 compared to all of 1:27 for the Irish, but couldn’t finish it. 

That was the last win of a lost season for Notre Dame. Something had to change around that program after that last loss, Forbes said then, and it certainly did. 

Wake coach Steve Forbes and Brey would be considered Nos. 1 and 2 in whatever order you want for league coach of the year this season. While little was expected of Notre Dame – it was picked to finish eighth – even less was expected out of Wake Forest, which was picked 13th. 

The Deacons got good in a hurry, thanks in part to the arrival of seven transfers, including Williams, who could earn league player of the year. He’s certainly a lock for first team (hello, Dane Goodwin!). Add the three transfers on the Irish roster and you could’ve run five-on-five, with a couple of trades, of nothing but transfers Saturday at the Joel. 

Both teams still have designs on top-four finishes, which will bring with them double-byes in the league tournament. 

Regardless of what happened Saturday, both still can get there. 

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

► WAKE FOREST 79, NOTRE DAME 74

At Winston-Salem, N.C.

NOTRE DAME (74): Atkinson 5-8 1-1 11, Goodwin 1-4 1-1 3, Hubb 4-10 0-0 10, Ryan 3-6 4-4 12, Wesley 7-14 4-6 24, Laszewski 3-5 2-2 11, Wertz 1-4 0-0 3. Totals 24-51 12-14 74.

WAKE FOREST (79): Mucius 3-10 0-0 8, Walton 1-4 2-2 4, Williams 10-25 3-3 23, Williamson 2-4 0-0 6, LaRavia 5-8 10-11 20, Sy 7-14 0-0 15, Monsanto 1-4 0-0 3, Whitt 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 29-70 15-16 79.

Halftime: Notre Dame 41-35. 3-Point Goals: Notre Dame 14-31 (Wesley 6-11, Laszewski 3-4, Ryan 2-3, Hubb 2-7, Wertz 1-3, Goodwin 0-3), Wake Forest 6-17 (Williamson 2-2, Mucius 2-6, Sy 1-2, Monsanto 1-4, LaRavia 0-1, Williams 0-2). Fouled Out: Walton. Rebounds: Notre Dame 25 (Goodwin 7), Wake Forest 41 (Williams, Sy 10). Assists: Notre Dame 13 (Hubb 6), Wake Forest 9 (LaRavia 5). Total Fouls: Notre Dame 17, Wake Forest 16. A: 8,355 (14,665).