by Anthony Harrison
Perhaps I was too hard on the Wake Forest Demon Deacons in my early estimation of the Triad’s sole ACC basketball program. I claimed they were “slightly unbalanced” in a game missing starting senior guard Codi Miller-McIntyre. I foresaw them floundering throughout the season; instead, they’ve maintained a winning campaign midway through, logging quality victories against teams like Indiana, UCLA and NC State.
In short, they’re doing better than I predicted.
But sadly, things fell apart against the Syracuse Orange on Jan. 16.
Syracuse Head Coach Jim Boeheim, a certified if not controversial living legend of college basketball, returned to his position a week before and nearly routed a Top 10-caliber Chapel Hill squad at home. Before then, they’d been shut out in conference play at Pittsburgh and Miami and at home against Clemson, but managed victories against the University of Connecticut and Texas A&M University, both ranked teams.
Now, Syracuse plays like a team cruising for a springtime run. Further proof: On Monday, they narrowly defeated the Duke Blue Devils in Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Unfortunately, the initial show of resurgent, brute force had to come at the expense of our Demon Deacons.
Have you ever seen any of those wonderful BBC documentaries narrated by Britain’s gift to the world of speech, David Attenborough? You know, like “Planet Earth” or “Life.” In these documentaries, you see the defensive behavior of a flock of starlings or a shoal of anchovies when a predator threatens the group. The collective actions of these individual animals will astonish you: They move as a singular organism against danger.
That’s how Syracuse’s defense acted towards the Deacons nearly every time Wake went for the basket. Miller-McIntyre or another Wake guard would bring the ball to half court, but the Orange would be waiting on the borders of the key. Boeheim’s teams typically play a 2-3 zone, and this Syracuse team looked like a rhombus shifting below the arc while another player would pop out onto the wings to defend the Deacon handling the ball.
My head-on angle from the press section may have assisted in this judgment, but I’ve never witnessed in person a zone so impenetrable in my time watching basketball. That’s the benefit of Hall-of-Fame coaching.
All Wake Forest could do most possessions was pass the ball back and forth on the outside, which led to nil or negative results.
The Deacons couldn’t handle the rolling ocean of orange. If the Orange didn’t force a turnover or a steal, Wake tried to throw up shots, but their accuracy suffered grievously under the pressure. Even Miller-McIntyre, who averages nearly 15 points per game, went 1-7 from the floor. The sole Deacon to crack double digits, 7-foot-1 freshman center Doral Moore, only crossed that barrier thanks to hitting four of five free throws.
Unfortunately, the rest of Wake Forest did not perform so well from the line.
I’ve mentioned before that this team’s ability to shoot foul shots must improve. In that outing, they shot 66 percent on free throws, inspiring a spectator to scream that Wake “can’t shoot free throws worth a flip.”
Well, they did not improve. Rather, on this outing, they did even worse, only hitting 59.5 percent of their 26 shots from the line.
As my late father always used to say, “You gotta make those if you wanna win.”
On the other end of the court, everything came up roses for the Orange.
Graduate student guard Trevor Cooney shot the lights out to begin the half for Syracuse, scoring his team’s first 11 straight points while Wake managed to put only four on the board. He’d finish with 21 points off 50-percent shooting on the afternoon.
Curiously, another grad student, forward Michael Gbinije, proved to be a second explosive force for his team, playing with superstar form and flash. With about three minutes left in the first half, he made a steal and drove it back on the fast break all alone, throwing down a fierce, slashing dunk.
Even the veteran sportswriters surrounding me seemed wowed, let alone the sizable Syracuse presence at Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
So many Orange fans showed up to this Wake home game, you’d think Syracuse was just on the other side of Tobacco Road. Of about 11,600 fans in attendance, I’d wager nearly two of every five wore that bold, hunter orange. At times, it sounded like a Syracuse home game in there.
I do not enjoy writing about what’s ostensibly a Wake Forest game in such a way that frames their opponent as the story. No matter my personal loyalties in the realm of sport, I respect the Demon Deacons, especially as the Triad’s team.
But you have to call a spade a spade, and this game wound up as Syracuse’s clinic with a final score of 83-55. They invaded the stadium and buried Wake Forest in bright orange.