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Irish drop close game at Wake Forest, look to bounce back against Syracuse

| Monday, February 21, 2022

Notre Dame’s five-game winning streak ended at the hands of Wake Forest, as the Irish (19-8, 12-4) fell 79-74 to the Demon Deacons (21-7, 11-6) on Saturday afternoon. Freshman Blake Wesley scored 24 points to pace the Irish. Senior Cormac Ryan added 12 as one of five double-digit scorers in a balanced offensive attack.

The result marred an outstanding shooting performance by Notre Dame, as they made 14 three-pointers, led by Wesley’s career-high six. The triples went in at a 45% clip to keep them in the game despite 15 turnovers. Irish head coach Mike Brey noted that he came into the game expecting a high-scoring affair.

“I thought we were going to have to score 80-something to get out of here [with a win],” Brey said. “They’re just too good offensively.”

While Notre Dame could not quite reach 80 points, their offense was up to the task in the first half as they scored 41 points and led by as many as 12. However, they ran out of steam down the stretch as several key players dealt with foul trouble. Graduate student forward Paul Atkinson picked up three fouls in the first half. Seniors Dane Goodwin and Nate Laszewski each had two, and Wake Forest took full advantage of Notre Dame’s shorthanded frontcourt, dominating the interior and finishing the game with a 16-2 edge in offensive rebounding. Coach Brey noted that an inability to close out possessions defensively was ultimately the separator in what was a hard-fought second half.

“They beat us up inside,” Brey said. “We hung in there and kept making plays to give ourselves a chance but just couldn’t quite get our hands on enough first misses and loose balls.”

Wake Forest was led by a big performance from senior guard Alondes Williams, who scored 23 points and pulled down 10 rebounds. Jake LaRavia added 20 points and nine boards. Notre Dame made several critical shots to stay within arm’s reach late in the game, including a Ryan three-pointer to cut the lead to two with just over a minute remaining, but Williams and LaRavia each scored in the final minute to seal the Deacons’ win.

Despite the loss, Brey praised his team’s effort and toughness to keep the game close in a difficult environment on the road.

“I just love our group,” Brey said. “That was a great college game, two really good teams going at it. It was an unbelievable college basketball atmosphere.”

Luckily for the Irish, they won’t have to wait long for a chance to bounce back from the loss. They immediately turn their attention to a two-game homestand that begins with a matchup against Syracuse (14-12, 8-7) on Wednesday. Syracuse comes into the game on a tear, as they have won five out of their last six (including a 22-point win against Wake Forest) to push them above .500 in ACC play. This follows a difficult start to the Orange’s season, and they will be highly motivated to continue racking up wins as they make a late push for an NCAA Tournament bid. This will be the Irish’s first matchup of the season against Syracuse. The Orange are led by the sweet-shooting Buddy Boeheim (19.1 PPG, 2.8 3PT/G). Point guard Joe Girard III averages 13.8 points per game and 4.3 assists per game

The game also holds important implications for Notre Dame as they look to get back into the win column. Losing to Wake Forest dropped the Irish one game behind Duke in the ACC title race. They will likely need to win most or all of their final four games to have a chance at earning a share of the championship or even winning it outright. A win would also keep Notre Dame in good position to finish in the top four of the ACC and claim an important double-bye in the ACC Tournament.

In terms of the Irish’s hopes for the NCAA Tournament, ESPN’s projections placed them firmly in the field as a 9-seed entering the weekend.  While that likely has not changed after a close loss on the road against a strong Wake Forest team, a second consecutive loss could push them closer to the dreaded bubble as Selection Sunday quickly approaches. It is important for their resume that they continue to take care of business and pick up wins down the stretch. They have no more projected tournament teams remaining on their schedule.

Coach Brey is not worried about how his team will respond to this latest adversity, as Notre Dame seeks their first March Madness berth since 2017.

“I have full confidence in this group,” Brey said. “They’re in the midst of chasing some things that they’ve never done before. They’ll rally and be ready for practice on Monday.”

Notre Dame faces off against Syracuse on Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. in Purcell Pavilion and on ESPNews.

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