DURHAM — Wake Forest was already facing a tall task trying to stop Duke’s stable of talented big men Saturday. The job only got tougher after starting center Doral Moore and his primary backup Olivier Sarr both got into early foul trouble.
Forced to the bench for long stretches and unable to defend as aggressively as they’d like when they were on the court, the Deacons’ foul-plagued inside tandem — and its seldom-used replacement Sam Japhet-Mathias — was no match for the seventh-ranked Blue Devils in a 89-71 loss at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
“Whenever your guys get into foul trouble, you miss their presence on the court,” Wake coach Danny Manning said. “We had other guys out there that do the same thing offensively and defensively, so that’s not an excuse. But we’d like to have those guys out there as much as possible.”
Moore, a 7-foot-1 junior who leads the team in rebounding and blocked shots while shooting better than 72 percent from the floor, picked up his second foul less than eight minutes into the game. Sarr, a 7-0 freshman who can play both inside and out, was called for his second around the same time.
Each was limited to just 17 minutes on the court for the game, with Moore finishing with nine points, six rebounds and three blocks while Sarr contributed four points and two boards.
Though the Deacons might not have have had much success trying to limit the damage done by the Duke freshman duo of 6-10, 234-pound Marvin Bagley III and 6-10, 259-pound Wendell Carter Jr. anyway — no one really has yet this season — the foul situation made the job all the more difficult.
Bagley finished with 30 points and 11 rebounds, going 11 of 21 from the floor. Carter finished with 15 points and 11 rebounds, going 7 of 10 from the free-throw line. The 10 free throws were one more than Wake shot as a team.
“It was difficult, because we need Doral in the game,” said junior sixth man Keyshawn Woods. “He’s a big presence. Even Olivier, with his shot-making ability and length on defense, it made it tough for us in the first half.”
Defense has been a problem for Wake all season. It came into the game ranked next-to-last in the ACC in points allowed at 73.2 per game. After giving up 89 to the Blue Devils, who were the only team ranked below the Deacons, Woods and his team have now dropped to rock bottom in that category.
It’s a problem Woods said needs to be addressed before going back on the road Thursday at NC State.
“You’ve got to want to play defense,” said Woods, who finished with 15 points Saturday to finish second on the team behind point guard Bryant Crawford. “That’s all of us. All of us have got to want to play defense and not just your man. You’ve got to play team defense. That’s something we’re struggling with.”
If there was one bright spot for Wake (8-9, 1-4 ACC) other than Crawford’s 21 points, six assists and only one turnover, it was the performance of Japhet-Mathias.
A beefy 6-11, 280-pound sophomore, the London native had played in only five of Wake’s 16 games prior to Saturday, logging a total of just 29 total minutes all season. Pressed into service against one of the nation’s top teams, he went 2 of 3 from the floor for four points with two rebounds in 15 minutes of action.
Like Moore and Sarr, he also committed four fouls.
“We called on him, he came in and I thought he competed,” Manning said of Japhet-Mathias. “He gave us some good minutes. He’s a big body and was able to hold his own throughout the minutes he played for us.”
Although he didn’t do anything spectacular, Japhet-Mathias didn’t do anything to hurt his team in a performance he hopes will lead to more playing time in the future.
“I hope so,” he said. “If not, I’ve got to stay ready. You can’t just say, ‘I’m not going to play in this game,’ you’ve got to stay on your toes in case Doral and Olivier get two quick fouls like they did in this game and you’re forced to play.”
Saturday’s loss was Wake’s third straight and fifth in its last six games, almost completely negating the positive strides made during a six-game winning streak before the start of ACC play.
With no soft touches coming up in a schedule that includes trips to State and Louisville, sandwiched around home games against top-10 opponents Virginia and Duke again, Woods warned that the season can get away from the Deacons in a hurry if they don’t get their act together soon.
“We’re on that same street when we were losing early on in the season,” Woods said. “Now it’s just confidence playing in. We just have to turn it around again. We just have to come together as a team. Nothing Coach draws up or tells us can change it. We’ve got to change it ourselves. It’s on us.”