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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