Notre Dame fades late at Wake Forest, but Irish freshman Wesley surges
It felt more like a speed bump than hitting a wall as the Notre Dame men’s basketball feel-good storyline hit the pause button Saturday at Wake Forest.
In a game that the Irish led by as many as 12 and had a chance to tie with five seconds left, Wake Forest survived, 79-74, and yet Notre Dame was able to walk away believing perhaps its best basketball may yet be ahead of it.
Because freshman Blake Wesley has found a second wind and is coming of age.
The 6-5 guard from South Bend, Ind., led all scorers with 24 points — one off his career high — and canned a career-high six 3s in 11 attempts, nearly offsetting a 16-2 offensive rebounding deficit and 15 turnovers for the Irish (19-8, 12-4).
“First of all he’s an athletic marvel,” Irish coach Mike Brey said. “He's an absolute freak of nature, and I mean that in a complimentary way. Athletically, he is a beautiful athlete. Well put together and he’s got a toughness about him and a will. And he plays a little older.”
In a four game stretch that ended with a big Irish road win at Miami on Feb. 2, Wesley grinded through a shooting slump in which he was a combined 10-of-55 from the field (18%) and 3-of-23 from the arc (13%).
In the five games since, he’s a collective 32-of-64 from the field (50%) and 13-of-27 from 3 (55%).
“I’m just so pleased with how he’s improved,” Brey said. “Especially shot selection, play-making. I mean he was involved in everything today. He continues to get better defensively. He comes down and rebounds for us.
“Just thrilled with how he’s playing.”
The Irish have four regular-season games left, three at home, to try to lock down a double-bye in the upcoming ACC Tournament. Only one of those four teams — Syracuse (14-12, 8-7) — has a winning record. The Orange visits Purcell Pavilion in South Bend on Wednesday night.
ACC leading scorer Alondes Williams helped keep Wake Forest (21-7, 11-6) in the double-bye conversation itself by shaking off a 2-for-12 shooting first half and scoring 17 of his team-high 23 points in the second half.
The 6-5 Oklahoma transfer put the Demon Deacons ahead for good, 67-66, a drive with 4:20 left in the game, to the delight of the crowd at Lawrence Joel Veteran Memorial Coliseum in Winston-Salem, N.C.
“We emptied the tank, man,” Brey said, “and they made some more plays, and Williams is everything he was advertised. We tried a little bit of everything and had no answers.”
The Irish still had a chance to tie late, when Cormac Ryan’s corner 3-pointer caromed off the rim and into traffic. Jake LaRavia ended up with the loose ball and clinched the win with two free throws with 3.5 seconds left.
LaRavia, an Indiana State transfer, finished with 20 points, including 10-of-11 from the free throw line, with nine rebounds and four steals. Ole Miss transfer Khadim Sy came off the bench to add 15 points and 10 rebounds.
Four other Irish players joined Wesley in double figures. Ryan started and scored 12 points. Paul Atkinson Jr. battled early foul trouble to finish with 11 points, despite heavy bench time.
Nate Laszewski came off the bench to score 11, and Prentiss Hubb had 10.
The Irish sank 14 3s as a team, the 12th time they’ve made at least 10 in a game this season and the first time they've lost under those circumstances,
“I said, ‘God what a waste of bullets,’” Brey remarked. “We had (41) points at halftime and I’m thinking, 'We’re going to have to score 85 to 90 to win. They’re just too good offensively.’ And we couldn’t.”
Now comes the rare task of regrouping.
“I’ve got full confidence in this group,” Brey said. “They’re in the midst of chasing some things that they’ve never done before, and they’ll rally and be ready for practice on Monday.”
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