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Men’s Basketball

Irish stumble down the stretch against Demon Deacons

| Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Coming off a closer-than-expected loss against Virginia over the weekend, Notre Dame failed to build off its positive performance and instead took a step back Tuesday night inside Purcell Pavilion, falling to ACC bottom-feeder Wake Forest 75-68.

“I was hoping we could go three steps forward, but this group’s never really been able to do that this year,” Irish head coach Mike Brey said. “It is what it is.”

Allison Thorton | The Observer
Irish junior guard T.J. Gibbs shoots a jump shot during Notre Dame’s 75-68 loss to Wake Forest on Tuesday at Purcell Pavilion.

Irish junior guard T.J. Gibbs, who led all scorers with 23 points, said the Irish will not simply hang their heads over yet another loss in conference play.

“Today was a little bit of a step back, but at the same time, I think we’re learning more and more each game,” Gibbs said. “As much as this is disappointing, it’s another learning lesson for us that we can get beat by any team in this league. There’s no cupcake, and we’re learning that lesson. … I think we’re getting there, we just got to keep fighting.”

While Notre Dame’s promotional Office Night brought excitement and novelty into a largely insignificant ACC matchup in terms of conference standings, the Irish performance was anything but extraordinary. Instead, it saw many of the same flaws and mistakes that have plagued the team throughout this season, mainly an inability to make winning plays in crunch-time situations.

“It’s close, but it’s not as close as one possession, psychologically, for us,” Brey said. “We’re not as confident, because we just haven’t had success. We’re going to keep trying, but the reality is we are who we are right now … finishing it and getting over the hump is a big hurdle for any group that’s developing. We’re really not showing any signs of being able to do it. That’s who we are.”

However, at the beginning of the game, both Notre Dame (13-13, 3-10 ACC) and Wake Forest (10-15, 3-10 ACC) played with the confidence of ACC heavyweights. Each team came out firing on the offensive side of the ball, as Wake Forest junior guard Brandon Childress connected on a couple early 3-pointers to take the Demon Deacons to an early 12-7 lead. However, Gibbs put Notre Dame on his back early on to keep pace with Wake Forest, scoring 13 of the team’s first 15 points — capped by a breakaway dunk — to bring the Irish within two points.

Freshman guard Prentiss Hubb then took over scoring responsibilities for a time, dropping five-straight points to give Notre Dame its first lead of the half at 20-19. After four more points apiece from Gibbs and junior forward Juwan Durham, sophomore wing DJ Harvey hit a 3-pointer to extend the Notre Dame lead to 31-27 with 6:49 left.

The Irish offense would largely slow down from there — the only exception coming from back-to-back possessions before the under-four-minute official timeout, as Mooney found a cutting Durham underneath the basket for a dunk before drilling a shot from behind the arc the ensuing possession to push the Irish lead to 36-29 with 3:39 left. However, the offense would stagnate for the rest of the half, and the Demon Deacons ripped off a 6-0 run to cut the lead to one heading into halftime.

Both teams began the second half by finding points much harder to come by, fighting tooth and nail and crawling, back and forth, into the lead for 11 minutes. Finally, Childress provided a lift for the Demon Deacons, hitting a three to put them ahead 55-53 with 9:08 left. That sparked a 13-4 run for the Demon Deacons, which included another 3-pointer from Childress, to balloon Wake Forest’s lead to 66-57 with 5:45 left.

“I thought Brandon Childress played his best game for us tonight,” Wake Forest head coach Danny Manning said. “Twenty points, seven rebounds, eight assists, zero turnovers and three steals. Huge bounce-back game from him coming off the last game we played.”

In the second half, Manning adjusted changed how Wake Forest guarded Gibbs, who had 17 first-half points but managed just six in the second frame.

“I think they were helping a little bit more,” Gibbs said. “My shots came a little bit easier in the first half, a little bit more within the flow. In the second half I forced it a little bit.”

However, down nine and in desperate need of a run, Notre Dame would respond, as the Irish ripped off a 9-0 run — sparked by a corner 3 from Mooney — to draw even with the Demon Deacons at 66 apiece with under three minutes to play.

And yet, as has become customary this season, the Irish failed to make winning plays down the stretch. The offense faltered, and Wake Forest simply made shots when it needed to, recording a 9-2 run to close out the game and come away with a victory inside Purcell Pavilion.

“They hit big shots, we didn’t,” Mooney said. “Thought our defense was pretty good down the stretch, but they made them and we didn’t get enough defensive rebounds down there at the end — they won the 50-50 balls — so hats off to them … the last two minutes, they made plays and we did not: that’s the bottom line.”

“It’s a little frustrating, but we’re rolling with the punches; I think that’s the biggest lesson we’re learning this year,” Gibbs said. “It’s never going to be an easy time … we got this and we’re going to keep working.”

Next up, the Irish will prepare for another home slugfest when No. 16 Virginia Tech visits Purcell Pavilion on Saturday. Tip-off is scheduled for 4 p.m.

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About Joe Everett

Joe is a senior PLS major and hails from the thriving metropolis of South Bend, IN. In addition to formerly serving as Sports Editor at The Observer, Joe is a RA in Stanford Hall and a past champion of the Observer's Fantasy Football league.

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