Demon Deacons guard Keyshawn Woods nailed the long shot from the left wing, releasing a coil of tension among the Wake Forest University fans in Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum. The crowd erupted in an explosion of cheers as the scoreboard updated: 64-51 in Wake’s favor with under seven minutes to go. It was the second half of their first home game of conference play, against Clemson University on New Year’s Eve, and Woods’ three finished off a 10-0 run against the Tigers. The shot secured the biggest lead for the Deacons, a game that Wake had largely dominated.
So with seven minutes to go and a 13-point pad between them and the Tigers, it seemed like the Deacs bagged the W. It would be a fantastic way to roll into the new year.
But, sadly, that’s all in the past.
For the better part of the last decade, the Wake Forest men’s basketball team has struggled, a damaged program lodged in the strongest basketball conference in the country. They’re the Triad’s home team in the Atlantic Coast Conference, but save for some Deacon grads, people here pull for any of the other three North Carolina teams instead.
Wake Forest last appeared in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament in 2010, squeaking by the University of Texas Longhorns in the first round only to lose to No. 1-seed University of Kentucky in the second. Years earlier the Deacs ascended to the Sweet 16 in 2004, but the team hasn’t made a significant run in March since then.
Their luck in the ACC hasn’t been better. The Deacons did secure a regular-season ACC title in 2003, but NC State upset them in the semifinals of the tournament proper. Wake last clinched an outright ACC title in 1996; it was their second consecutive championship led by living legend Tim Duncan.
While Duncan left a long shadow, Wake hasn’t suffered from a complete dearth of talent in the ensuing years. The most notable former Deacon in the NBA is current Los Angeles Clippers point guard and Winston-Salem native Chris Paul — nine-time NBA All-Star, maybe the best at his position in his generation of NBA players. He played for Wake Forest for two seasons, leading them to their first-ever No. 1 ranking for two weeks early in the 2004-’05 season.
But no matter how talented individual Deacons may be, they haven’t been able to re-establish a foothold in the ACC.
One organizational woe possibly holding back the Demon Deacons has been a lack of consistency in the coaching department. Since Skip Prosser’s unexpected passing from a massive heart attack in 2007, Wake Forest has hired three new head coaches. Prosser’s protégé Dino Gaudio took over the late coach’s charge in the middle of the season, rebounding from tragedy to help the Deacs post two 20-win seasons in a row.
But then, Wake Forest fired Gaudio at the end of the 2009-’10 season.
Athletic Director Ron Wellman cited the team’s lack of late-season and postseason wins as the deciding factor. Gaudio’s postseason record was 1-5, his only win being the previously mentioned first-round NCAA tournament victory over the Longhorns.
“We can put up with a disappointment,” Wellman said at the time. “We have disappointments all the time. But there is a pattern here that needed to be addressed, a three-year pattern that needed to be addressed.”
Unfortunately, Wake Forest’s troubles only worsened after addressing the alleged problem.
Gaudio’s replacement, Jeff Bzdelik, could not replicate his predecessor’s success. After three losing seasons and a 17-16 record in 2014, Bzdelik abdicated from Wake Forest and became an assistant coach in the NBA.
Wake next hired Danny Manning. A College Basketball Hall of Fame inductee, Manning won two national championships with the University of Kansas Jayhawks, both as an assistant to head coach Bill Self in 2008 and as a power forward 20 years prior; he still holds the record for most points scored in the Jayhawks’ storied history.
No matter his bona fides, over Manning’s first two seasons, the Demon Deacons have a cumulative record of 24-39.
Wake Forest began conference play this season with a road game in Tallahassee, Fla. against the No. 20 Florida State Seminoles on Dec. 28, 2016. Their record was 9-3; they’d dropped close road games against Xavier University and Northwestern University, and defending national champions Villanova University had blown them out of the water, 96-77, when they visited Charleston, SC back on Nov. 18.
But Wake had also destroyed Louisiana State University in their most recent home game on Dec. 22, holding the Tigers to 76 while scoring an astonishing 110 points.
At that point, the ’Noles were 12-1, having lost only to Temple University, 89-86, on Nov. 24. The Seminoles boasted deep talent and length for days, with 11 players standing 6-foot-6 or taller.
Regardless, Wake came out swinging, securing the tip despite all that Seminole height, leading to a quick three to put the Deacs on the board. On the other side of the court, Wake defended well, crowding the paint and throwing Florida State off their guard. Wake Forest kept on the offensive, with Keyshawn Woods hitting a mid-range jumper and Bryant Crawford sinking two free throws.
When you’re an unranked team, a 7-0 run against No. 20 isn’t the worst way to start. It makes sense that Woods and Crawford would lead the charge.
Woods, a redshirt sophomore from Gastonia, sat out last season after transferring from UNC-Charlotte, standard practice for student-athletes switching schools. While with the 49ers, Woods came off the bench as a highly valuable sixth man, playing all 32 games and starting three. He averaged 8.4 points per game, breaching double digits in 13 appearances, including 19 points on seven-of-10 shooting against the University of Alabama-Birmingham. Most impressively, Woods led Conference USA in three-point shooting, hitting 46.6 percent of his shots from beyond the arc.
In this, his first season for the Demon Deacs, Woods has been a more-than-occasional starter, averaging 13.4 points with 54.3 percent accuracy; amazingly, his eye has improved at range, nailing 47.9 percent of his three-point attempts.
Crawford, a true sophomore starter from Silver Spring, Md., is not one to be outdone. He started 30 games last season, racking up 13.8 points, 4.4 assists and 1.7 steals on average. Crawford led conference first-years in those latter two categories and was named to the All-ACC Freshman Team. In their first-round ACC Tournament loss to NC State, Crawford picked the ball six times, tying the tournament record. He also snagged ACC Rookie of the Week honors in February of last year, scoring 20 points, pulling down six rebounds, feeding six assists and snagging six steals against the University of Pittsburgh.
The last Deacon to record a 20-5-5-5 game was Chris Paul.
Crawford has performed admirably this season, too, logging 14.5 points per game on 45.9 percent shooting from the floor.
Florida State’s own star guards finally struck back with a three-pointer from the next ZIP code, but Woods answered with an offensive rebound and another jumper. The Seminoles nailed their own bucket beyond the arc two possessions later.
The Seminoles’ objective for the first half became clear: Hit threes to demoralize the Demon Deacons, reflecting the current trend in NBA play. But for the most part, those threes were not landing through the early minutes of the first half.
Meanwhile, Wake Forest looked damn good on both sides of the ball. They were scrapping and hustling, putting strong defensive pressure on the Seminoles and making smart plays to make quick buckets, particularly from forward Dinos Mitoglou.
Starting junior Mitoglou, a 6-foot-10 import from Thessaloniki, Greece, has appeared in every game possible since his arrival at Wake Forest, starting in all but one game last season. He posted his first ACC double-double in a matchup against the University of Louisville last January and added two more over the rest of conference play. This season, Mitoglou averages 10.3 points per contest, and shoots 39.1 percent from beyond the arc.
It never hurts to have a 255-pound forward with accuracy from the three-point line.
A sneaky bounce pass inside from Woods, and Mitoglou hit a jumper in the paint. A foul by Florida State forward Jarquez Smith, and Mitoglou sank the second free throw. Another feed from Crawford following a steal led to a quick Mitoglou layup. Not one to be selfish, Mitoglou next dished the rock to Woods on the wing for a clutch three. The score stood at 19-12.
But Florida State made a quiet and quick 12-3 run, predicated on long-range sniping, and the ’Noles led 24-22 with 10 minutes left in the first half. Wake stopped and ran themselves, but Florida State employed the full-court press. Soon, the ’Noles woke up again. Their press putting the Deacs out of sorts, and quick baskets put them up 39-38 with two minutes remaining in the period.
Florida State failed to land a coup de grace, and Wake snuck ahead on two free throws. The half closed with little ado.
Considering the competition, Wake Forest had plenty to be happy about going into the locker room. It was only the second time this season the Seminoles trailed at the half; despite shooting 41.4 percent from the field, they’d chucked 15 shots from long range and only made six of them.
The Deacons just needed to keep it up for another 20 minutes.
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The New Year’s Eve game against Clemson began with jingoistic Wake fandom. The Demon Deacon revved up a motorcycle in the home-side tunnel and rumbled onto the hardwood before team introductions. Tall, stainless-steel pyrotechnic towers spouted fire as the emcee announced Wake’s starting five. The pep band blasted the fight song, and the amped-up crowd clapped along, screaming, “Go Deacs!”
Coming home put Wake Forest at ease. After a bobble off the Tigers’ paws, Wake secured the tip, and Woods sank a fade to put the Deacons on the board. Clemson replied on the other end, then blocked Wake’s three-point attempt. A back-and-forth ensued, finally broken by a tiptoe layup from Deacons forward John Collins.
Collins, a sophomore from West Palm Beach, Fla., was rather quiet in the Florida State game. But he racks up great numbers without making a big show of it. He’s the Deacs’ leading scorer this season, posting 16.4 points per game.
After coming off the bench in 30 games last year and starting one, Collins has proven his worth as a full-time starting forward despite his youth. But you can’t argue with the figures he puts up in the post. Along with his scoring — accomplished at 60-percent accuracy, mind you — Collins leads Wake in rebounding with 9.6 per game and a total of 135, leaving the rest of his team in the dust. He pounds the offensive glass, tearing down 49 offensive rebounds thus far, twice as many as his closest competitor, Dinos Mitoglou. He’s a dominant presence inside for Wake Forest, and maybe their strongest overall threat.
Following an official timeout, Mitoglou and Woods tacked on shots from long range to put Wake up 14-6 after seven and a half minutes, drawing deafening cheers from the home crowd and forcing a Clemson timeout.
Wake effectively held Clemson at bay for much of the first half, despite the Tigers’ greatest efforts. Clemson’s successful layup in the last five seconds set the score at 36-31 right before the buzzer.
But the Tigers roared out of the locker room, their defense tighter and more aggressive. Clemson drew within 1 after five and a half minutes, and after a five-point run made the score 42-41. But Crawford nipped the rally with a clutch wing shot. Tiger forward Elijah Thomas soon had to hit the bench after racking up four fouls, leaving Collins more room to extend his double-digit scoring effort with basket after basket.
A hitch in the effort: Greg McClinton fouled Clemson guard Marcquise Reed as he sank a three. He threw his hands to his face, gritting his teeth in frustration. Reed made the and-one, hoisting his team within striking distance at 54-51.
Soon enough, Crawford sank yet another trey. And the crowd made some noise.
After Clemson committed an offensive foul, Collins banged in a layup on the inside.
McClinton redeemed himself with a put-back, extending their lead to double digits, 61-51, and a 30-second Clemson timeout couldn’t halt their momentum. The Demon Deacons seemed unstoppable. But, as it had before, things fell apart.
Finishing strong might show a team’s maturity and ability better than any other metric. And while Wake Forest boasts plenty of talent, they have trouble finishing.
The Florida State game, which saw the Deacons in fine form against a formidable foe for much of the matchup, ended in disaster. The Triad’s team crested after Wake guard Mitchell Wilbekin secured a five-point lead with a three-ball, setting the score at 66-61 with 9 minutes left in the game. But then the Seminoles went on the warpath, their star guards sinking shots from any range. Four and a half minutes later, Woods finally made a layup, but the damage was done: Florida State had rocketed ahead, scoring 17 unanswered points. After another tortuous 4:30, the final buzzer blared, and the Demon Deacons were beaten, 88-72.
On the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, a high crest again crashed down on the Demon Deacons in the final minutes of a game that had been theirs.
The slip began quietly enough after Clemson hit a jumper. Reed brought the Tigers within single digits with a quick three. Reed then picked Woods and made two free throws following a foul by Crawford.
Woods and Wilbekin expanded Wake’s lead back to 10, but Wilbekin’s layup with five minutes remaining would be the final Deac score. They missed all of their last nine shots.
Two threes by Clemson guards bookended a long dry spell. Then, with 1:15 to go, Reed assisted forward Donte Grantham for an and-one layup, resulting in the first Clemson lead of the game, 70-68. The Deacons, desperate to quit the run, resorted to fouling, but the Tigers kept landing their free throws. Time slowed to a grinding halt. Finally, Clemson slammed a dunk with eight seconds left, a humiliating end to a hard-fought game, the visitors landing the win, 73-68.
In the back tunnel of the coliseum, the cheerleaders filed into their locker room.
“Oh, Deacs, Deacs, Deacs…” one sighed.
Clemson head coach Brad Brownell, seemingly exhausted, debriefed the media in the press room.
“We kept hangin’ in there, hangin’ in there, hangin’ in there, and we got some good stops,” Brownell said. “We were fortunate. We didn’t play the way you should play to win a game like this for 32, 34 minutes.”
Coach Manning, frowning and quiet, added to Brownell’s analysis of the game’s end.
“They made plays down the stretch to put themselves in position to win,” Manning said. “All games that you lose are a hard pill to swallow and upsetting and all that. But we were in command of this game for almost 36 minutes, and we weren’t able to close it out.”
What looked like a promising season, 9-3 before the Florida State game last week, now appeared mediocre.
Yet their stars performed admirably. In the New Year’s Eve game, Collins recorded his third 20-point game, on top of seven rebounds and two blocks. Crawford and Woods both tallied 16 points. They slayed from the free-throw line, hitting 10 of 11 — a small consolation, but considering the team’s previous problems from the charity stripe, a marked improvement.
The Wake Forest Demon Deacons are a good basketball team. They just went cold at a time where they needed to smoke the Tigers out of the coliseum. It was not for lack of talent; it’s an intangible, inexplicable problem that betrays the numbers these young men consistently produce.
“It’s been a pattern here for us at Wake Forest for the past two years,” Woods said following the game. “The coaching staff can’t do nothing about it; the Xs and Os is fine. It’s us as a team that’s going have to fix this problem if we want to be a contender in the ACC.”
Though still decent at 9-5, the two losses last week suggest deeper issues haunting Wake Forest this season, especially since Wake is 0-2 in conference play so far.
Manning’s Deacons have a tough schedule laid out for them this month. Aside from games against Boston College on Tuesday after press time and again on Jan. 31, Wake Forest must face the University of Virginia, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, the University of Miami, NC State, Syracuse University and Duke University — five of which went to the NCAA tournament in 2016, including UNC who almost won it all last year and Duke who did the season prior.
But Manning remained optimistic about how he and the team would prepare for this tough stretch. “We’ll continue to practice the way that we’ve been practicing,” Manning said. “We have to continue to give ourselves a chance to win ballgames. And we’ve done that every game that we’ve played.”
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