Late collapse ends Deacons’ season in familiar fashion

Charlotte native Trey Wertz hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer as Notre Dame rallied from a 16-point deficit to beat Wake Forest in the opening round of the ACC Tournament

Notre Dame guard Trey Wertz is mobbed by his teammates after hitting the winning buzzer-beater to beat Wake Forest on Tuesday in the first round of the ACC Tournament. (Gerry Broome / AP Photo)

GREENSBORO — As any college basketball coach will tell you, tournament time marks the start of a new season — that point in the year in which everyone’s slate is wiped clean and records revert back to 0-0.

For 35 minutes Tuesday, it actually looked as though that might be the case for Wake Forest.

The Deacons bore little resemblance to the team that came into the ACC Tournament having lost seven straight to finish the regular season. 

They were aggressive, made shots and defended in charging out to an early double-digit lead on Notre Dame. They extended the advantage to as many as 16 points in the second half in what was by far their best effort in nearly a month.

In the end, though, the new season ended the same way as the old one.

With yet another loss.

The 14th-seeded Deacons went cold at precisely the wrong time, missing 10 straight field goal attempts down the stretch, allowing the 11th-seeded Irish to rally and earn a second-round date with North Carolina on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer by Trey Wertz.

“Sometimes the game can be cruel,” Wake coach Steve Forbes said after his rookie season in Winston-Salem ended in disappointment. “It doesn’t always reward the team that probably deserved to win. We led for maybe 35 minutes of the game and we just couldn’t finish it.”

Despite allowing Notre Dame to score 14 straight points over a 6½-minute span down the stretch to take its first lead since 2-0 with 1:54 remaining, the Deacons (6-16) still had the game in their hands on what figured to be the final possession.

Freshman guard Carter Whitt tied the score at 77 with a basket that ended Wake’s drought with 50.1 seconds left. It then regained possession after forcing a Notre Dame miss.

Forbes said he thought about calling timeout to set up a play, but decided against it — a decision he would later second guess during his postgame Zoom. But he still ended up with the right man taking the final shot.

Graduate transfer Daivien Williamson was the Deacons’ leading scorer with 21 points, including making 5 of 5 from 3-point range. This time, though, his driving jumper in the lane was blocked by Notre Dame’s Cormac Ryan with about four seconds left on the clock.

“Daivien just needed one or two more dribbles to get to the basket to either try to get a foul on a lay-up or a kick-out,” Forbes said. “He just picked up his dribble and tried to shoot it over him, and he’s a smaller guy.

“I could have called timeout. Hindsight being 40/40 — 20/20, whatever, I should have. (But) I trust Daivien. … He was the right guy, it just didn’t happen.”

What made things worse is that there was still enough time left on the clock for Ryan to pick up the loose ball, hustle it downcourt and pass back to Wertz trailing the play. The North Carolina native, whose father is a sportswriter for The Charlotte Observer, then fired home a 35-foot jumper for the win.

He was so sure that the ball was going in that he began celebrating before it hit the net.

“I was yelling at Cormac, ‘Behind you, behind you’ and he tossed it back,” Wertz said. “As soon as I let it go I knew it was good, and it kind of went straight through.”

The result was a proverbial gut punch to the young Deacons team that hadn’t won since beating Boston College all the way back on Feb. 10.

“It hurts, man,” said junior forward Isaiah Mucius, who helped carry Wake for most of the evening with a 20-point, 12-rebound double-double. “This is tough because I think we were clicking, I feel like we would have won this game, and I think we had a really good chance of making a run.

“We’ve been so connected defensively, how we’ve been moving the basketball. We’ve been playing our best basketball maybe the past two or three games. We didn’t come out on the results, but I just see the growth and progression that we came to as a team from those losses.”

Mucius said that fatigue may have been a factor in Wake’s stumbling to the finish line. While Forbes agreed to a point, he added that his team’s defense let it down more than its offense during the final six minutes.

“We didn’t get enough stops,” he said. “We had enough points to win.” 

If there was a silver lining to the all-too-familiar ending, it’s the energy with which the Deacons played, especially during the early stages of both halves. Forbes was also encouraged by the play of freshman point guard Whitt.

The youngster, who graduated from high school early to join the team in late December, finished with a season-best 12 points on 5-of-12 shooting (2 of 5 3-pointers). He also had seven assists and just one turnover in 39 minutes in what Forbes called the best game of his career.

“I said that after the game, what a good way for him in a loss to end the season,” Forbes said. “He probably should be playing your high school tonight. I’m really proud of Carter.”