Blake Wesley is here and his time has arrived
SOUTH BEND – Blake Wesley, moments after his hasty pass found an unsuspecting photographer instead of a teammate, turned to a trick from one of Notre Dame’s senior leaders as a pick-me-up.
Wesley backpedaled down the court after his costly turnover, lowered his hands from his head and smacked them together for one mighty clap.
“In the locker room, Dane Goodwin does a power clap,” Wesley said. “Every time he does a power clap, it’s [on to] the next play. I did that.”
Time to move on. In a tie game Saturday against No. 10 Kentucky with 51 seconds left, Notre Dame now needed a stop. Wesley, Notre Dame’s freshman guard, had no room to let frustration from his mistake linger. He snapped – er, clapped – out of it and authored an ending this program craved.
On a night where Notre Dame threw a party for beloved program icon LaPhonso Ellis, its budding star produced the defining moment of his nascent career. The kid from The Bend lit the fuse on a Purcell Pavilion party. Only fitting Notre Dame’s last local product, guard Demetrius Jackson, was on hand to watch.
Notre Dame forced that necessary stop, with Wesley punctuating it by pulling down a defensive rebound. Then, he raised his hand when Notre Dame needed a lift.
Wesley’s free throw line jumper with 12 seconds left pushed Notre Dame ahead of Kentucky and was the winning shot in a 66-62 victory that ended a three-game skid. The Irish (4-4, 0-1 ACC) have renewed life in a season that was teetering on the cusp of a backslide. They also have an emerging talent who will make every game worth watching no matter where this year goes.
“To bounce back after the turnover – he was trying to make a play because he’s the one guy who can – and then go, ‘I’m just going to win this one,’ that’s special stuff,” head coach Mike Brey said.
With all due respect to this team’s senior core, and they deserve plenty for their play against Kentucky, it’s Wesley who can have the most powerful effect on Notre Dame’s ceiling this year. He’s also the team’s clear alpha.
Eight games into his career, the South Bend native is not only a memory maker, but an undeniable spark. He has led Notre Dame in scoring two of the last three games. His 14 points on 6-of-12 shooting against Kentucky tied Goodwin for the team-high. He also had three assists.
The Irish understand they have to hitch their trailer to Wesley and go along for the ride. It might have bumps. Its promise, though, is enticing. This game is the moment everyone on the home bench realized it.
Brey slid Wesley into the starting lineup in place of senior point guard Prentiss Hubb eight days earlier at Boston College. Wesley responded with 12 points on 4-of-13 shooting, with four turnovers, in a 73-57 loss.
Yet Brey kept him in the starting five. More importantly, he was in the finishing five. Hubb, a starter since his freshman year and an offensive focal point, did not play the final 7:22 after another rough outing. It was Wesley’s show. Perhaps, even a passing of the torch.
“When we get to the end of the clock, it’s, ‘Get it to Blake and let him go make a play,’” Brey said. “He will find people too. He just has the ability to do that, better than anyone our team.
“He’s wired like that. And he has great teammates. Those old guys have embraced him and know that we need him.”
Wesley’s heroics not only won the game, but rescued a dead possession.
Notre Dame inbounded the ball with 28 seconds left, the scored tied 62-62, and dialed up a middle ball screen with guard Trey Wertz as the handler and forward Paul Atkinson Jr. as the roller. It was the same action they needled Kentucky with all half. The Wildcats, though, were ready. Wertz saw no good options, picked up his dribble and passed back to Goodwin at the top of the key for a reset.
Wesley caught Goodwin’s pass on the wing and found Kentucky guard Davion Mintz breathing on him. He took off, dribbling with his left hand as his long strides chewed up the real estate between the wing and the basket. He pulled up at the ACC logo. Mintz, meanwhile, slid backward.
“Got to my spot, that’s my mid-range,” Wesley said.
It can make a broken play look intentional. Didn’t hurt he took time to work on it the last two days of practice either.
“I trust Blake to make a lot of shots,” Atkinson said. “He’s a guy who can go make a tough shot over a defender.”
With each instance of it or every sound decision he makes, it’s easy to forget Wesley was playing in the Northern Indiana Conference a year ago. He’s a freshman with an increasingly heavy load placed on his shoulders. Forgive him if at times it feels a bit burdensome, even if those moments have been intermittent and not frequent so far.
“There’s a special uniqueness about him and he has allowed us to really coach him and coach him hard,” Brey said. “I’ve been hard on him. Coach [Anthony] Solomon has been hard on him. His body language and maturity was better tonight. He ran our team. I thought his shot selection was better.”
Wesley readiness for this amount of work doesn’t happen without his willingness to be coached and the seniors’ embrace of him. They could have seen him as a threat. Instead, they’ve allowed him to lift the whole team up.
And after his shot, they lifted him. A few teammates hoisted Wesley on their shoulders amid the mass of humanity on the court for all the hometown crowd to see. He’d better get used to the lights.
“You know what was really cool? When they did the starting lineups and it says, ‘From South Bend,’” Brey said. “When I was recruiting him, I used to tease him about that. Maybe we get to the point where we just say, ‘The Bend.’”
That point doesn’t feel far away.
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