by Anthony Harrison
The Wake Forest University Men’s Basketball Team defeated UNC-Pembroke’s Braves 86-64 in an exhibition game at Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum on Nov. 6, marking a win for the Deacons’ basketball season preview. But it wasn’t looking like a blowout the whole time.
The Nov. 6 game in Winston-Salem was a tale of two halves, for the Braves actually led the home team by a point at the end of the first, 33-32. And that was only after a late-half rally by the Deacons.
I don’t want to seem glum or pessimistic… but I’m going to have to be. Things aren’t looking great for the Triad’s lone Atlantic Coast Conference team.
Every team wants to win their first game of the season. Regardless of whether it’s an exhibition, teams must enter their season with this mentality. It’s almost a given that a team like Wake Forest should win their first game in a cupcake matchup against a team like UNC-Pembroke.
But David has been known to defeat Goliath.
Going into that Friday night, Pembroke was ranked 10th in the nation among Division II schools. You may scoff, thinking, “Well, yeah, in Division II…”
Listen: You can say all you want about the difference in talent or physicality or anything else between Division I and II, but I argue that if you’re ranked highly in any sector, you can prove to be a threat.
Pembroke certainly started off looking like one for their Division I opponents.
On paper, Wake seemed dominant in the stats during the first half: 43.5 percent on shooting, a 12-rebound advantage over Pembroke, seven swatted shots. These laudable numbers only improved during the second half.
But remember — they were losing by a point at halftime.
They may have been smaller, sure, but through most of the first half, the Braves played quick, clever ball. Pembroke didn’t shoot well; as aforementioned, they only scored 33 points on paltry 28.9 percent accuracy. But they hit four threes on 12 attempts and made seven of nine free throws, and initially, that made up the difference.
They also worked pretty well against Wake’s coverage, occasionally rolling out of traps to make splendid plays — at least, when the shots dropped.
Rallying through the second half, the Deacs rarely looked back over their shoulders.
And they played surprisingly well on defense. They forced 10 steals in that first half alone — three apiece from guards Quamain Rose and Keysheen Hinton — steals which added up to an embarrassing 17 Wake turnovers by halftime.
Their largest lead was eight points with 3:17 left before halftime. At that moment, I thought, Hell, I’m down for an upset.
But the Braves couldn’t convert the lead into double digits in the face of the Wake defense, which collapsed on drives in the paint and trapped quickly in the backcourt.
Rallying through the second half, the Deacs rarely looked back over their shoulders. They left the first half behind and pulled it together for the ass-whipping final score.
They even started having fun with the game nestled in their pocket, throwing up alley-oops and slamming dunks against a weary, demoralized Pembroke squad.
That’s a mark of an upper-echelon team: Finishing strong, with a flourish.
So here’s what’s not going well for Wake Forest.
They were appalling from the free-throw line, hitting only two-thirds of their 39 opportunities for extra points.
One fan behind me even shouted, “C’mon, Wake! Can’t shoot free throws worth a flip!”
Wake clearly needs work with controlling the ball. A small team like Pembroke may take the rock away more easily, but 25 turnovers doesn’t bode well, especially with the sweeping majority in the first 20 minutes.
The Deacons are also slightly unbalanced. Senior forward Devin Thomas shined with 25 points and 16 of Wake’s 49 rebounds. Two other players — sophomore forward Dinos Mitoglou and freshman forward John Collins — tallied 15 and 12 points respectively, with Collins contributing those points off the bench. Teams can only rarely support themselves on the back of one player alone.
Here’s harsh reality: Wake Forest University competes in the ACC. Carolina, Duke, Virginia and Notre Dame are all ranked in both major preseason polls. And Wake will face all of them over the course of the coming season.
The Demon Deacons cannot allow a half like they played against Pembroke against teams of this caliber. Any of those squads likely would’ve turned 17 first-half turnovers paired with a pithy performance at the line into an insurmountable blowout.
I may be kicking Wake while they’re down, though.
Recently, their program hasn’t had the same spark as they did in the halcyon days of the ’90s and early aughts. The program that produced Muggsy Bogues, Tim Duncan, Josh Howard and Chris Paul last reached the Sweet 16 in 2004 and hasn’t appeared in the NCAA tournament over the last four seasons.
But, excepting Thomas, they’re young. They have time yet to grow.
Here’s hoping this exhibition game was a learning experience, or the pep band will have to add some Steely Dan to their repertoire.