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Monday, May 27, 2024
The Observer

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Notre Dame’s season likely wraps up with ACC Tournament loss

Irish fall 72-59 to Wake Forest in a game they never led

WASHINGTON — Notre Dame’s 2023-2024 men’s basketball team was unpredictable, often shooting itself in the foot. But in every minute of every game, head coach Micah Shrewsberry made it clear: giving it one’s all wasn’t just encouraged, but required. The team took that message to heart. Unfortunately, it can only get a team so far.

As the clock hit zero Wednesday in Capital One Arena, Notre Dame found itself on the wrong side of the scoreboard. The Irish fell short, 72-59, to a talented (yet also streaky) Wake Forest team looking to clinch a spot in the NCAA Tournament.

For the Irish, it wasn’t the performance they wanted, but even in the loss, the team brought the fight, grit and determination that has become synonymous with Micah Shrewsberry’s name.

Notre Dame got off to a rough start in the game’s first few minutes. While the Irish shot the ball spectacularly well against Georgia Tech, that hasn’t been the norm this year. Notre Dame seemed to revert back to that norm against Wake Forest. 

The Demon Deacons mostly played a 2-3 zone, forcing the Irish to take contested shots. Yet Wake’s guards pushed so far up near half court that even 3-point shots were being contested.

Notre Dame never went away, though. This team found itself close throughout the first 25 minutes. 

With freshman guards Markus Burton and Braeden Shrewsberry picking up two fouls in the first 13 minutes along with sophomore forward Kebba Njie, the Irish role players had to be ready to contribute. Carey Booth stepped up with a surprising performance from behind the arc. The freshman forward  picked up 11 points, all in the first half, including going 3 for 6 from deep before halftime. Among all Irish players who played at least 20 minutes, Booth had the highest stop percentage at 59.5%. Stop percentage estimates the rate of defensive possessions where the opposing team did not score.

Throughout the course of the action, Notre Dame’s primary problem was stopping Wake Forest near the rim. Wake had an unlucky day when the teams met a few weeks ago — one of its worst performances of the year. Naturally, that got better, especially against young, inexperienced players like Njie and Booth. Senior forward Matt Zona saw minutes as well, but all of Wake’s bigs had a few inches on Zona, making it difficult for him to stay competitive defensively.

Njie had an especially brutal first half, including one point, one rebound, three turnovers and a technical foul. Micah Shrewsberry was particularly fed up with Njie after he lost the ball near the hoop on offense, causing the Irish coach to burn his first timeout with 2:08 left in the first half.

Notre Dame limited its mistakes late to keep it to a 6-point game going into the halftime break. 

The game gradually started slipping away from there. Notre Dame struggled to get fouls called to begin the second half — although there was a lot of contact on both sides of the floor. Both Burton and Braeden Shrewsberry picked up their third personal fouls before the 12-minute media timeout. With 12 minutes to play, the Demon Deacons led by 11.

Meanwhile, Njie’s play didn’t improve in the second half as he went scoreless in the final 20 minutes. 

The Irish energy and enthusiasm began to run low, too. This was an arena full of Wake Forest fans and neutral observers — and it showed. The Irish played with grit, but with Burton playing with four fouls with five minutes to go, the aggressiveness only went so far.

Notre Dame’s shooting went cold in the second half. The team went 0 for 8 from three while shooting 20% from the field.

Burton played the entire game, scoring 21 points off of 12 for 12 shooting from the free-throw line. Sophomore forward Tae Davis played nicely amidst Njie’s off day, contributing 16 points.

In his postgame remarks, Wake Forest head coach Steve Forbes explained that containing Burton was key to the teams’ success.

“[In] this game, we wanted to make Burton a passer [and] not let him go downhill in the ball screen and the zoom action,” Forbes said. “I thought we did [for the] most part a really good job of that… We were up to touch, not letting him turn the corner.”

Micah Shrewsberry’s postgame comments were limited, but after congratulating the Demon Deacons on their win, he still spoke highly of his team’s work.

“I’m proud of our guys for their fight, for their effort — not just today but this whole season,” he said.

Wake Forest’s win keeps its NCAA Tournament hopes alive. Going into the game, Wake Forest was listed as part of the dreaded “First Four Out” per ESPN’s Joe Lunardi. To cement their status as a tournament team, the Demon Deacons will have to beat Pittsburgh in tomorrow's 4-5 seed matchup. Wake Forest’s team has not made the tournament since a 2017 loss in the First Four. Forbes is in his fourth season coaching the team. 

Notre Dame’s season is now likely over. With a record significantly under 500, the Irish don’t seem like a prime candidate for the NIT. Of course, there is the College Basketball Invitational — who would accept Notre Dame in a heartbeat. However this is typically reserved for mid-majors; no Power 5 team (or Big East) has played in the tournament since COVID-19.

Micah Shrewsberry’s first year was a learning experience. His team won games it shouldn’t have (against Virginia, Clemson or Wake Forest) while losing to Western Carolina and the Citadel. Beating Georgia Tech for the third time was a nice victory to close the season. Compared to last year, the team has already improved; Mike Brey’s final squad lost in the first round.

For Coach Shrewsberry, the work doesn’t end anytime soon, though. He’ll be individually meeting with players in the coming days to talk about their future with the program. The Irish have a solid class coming in, ranked 26th in the country by 247sports. Four-stars Sir Mohammed and Cole Certa will provide Notre Dame with increased backcourt depth. Yet, Notre Dame’s status next year depends on keeping players in South Bend.

While no team member has given any indication they may be pursuing other colleges or universities in the transfer portal, in today’s NCAA, no coach can ever be sure about what happens next. 

Notre Dame’s situation is simple: Micah Shrewsberry needs to have Burton, his son and at least one young post player — Njie or Booth — around to take the next step forward and compete for a spot in the NCAA Tournament. 

Until then,the team is optimistic about its chances. The ACC will see significant change next year. Several veteran teams like Wake Forest will lose most of their starters. For a young team like Notre Dame, there’s now an opening to take a step forward.

“We’re all new to this, and we’re all young, too,” said Burton. “It’s a bigger picture in the long run, but it was a great season. We did what we were supposed to. We fought all season long.”

His final words:

“Just know we’ll be back.”