Wake Forest got back on track today at home against Virginia Tech with a 73-70 victory. Codi Miller-McIntyre led the way for the Deacs today with 19 points. The win stopped the bleeding for the Deacs after four straight losses against ACC foes with three ending in heartbreak and one in a blowout.
Two of the ACC's most exciting new coaching additions faced off for the first time today, each of whom tried to impose their game plan on the matchup early on. Freshman Dinos Mitoglou started in place of the postgrad Darius Leonard, but otherwise, the early strategy for the Deacs looked similar to recent games. Greg McClinton took advantage of his start with active hands blocking shots, disrupting passing lanes early on defense, and spreading the floor and rebounding well on offense (he did also clank two free throws). Each team started out slowly offensively, shooting poorly and taking bad shots, with a 2-2 score at the under 16:00 timeout. The Deacs slow scoring start continued as they scored just six points in the first ten minutes of action. The best looks early came from guards attacking the basket on isolation plays and perimeter passing opening up the floor. Jump shots and transition baskets alike failed the Deacs as the sluggish start took the crowd out of the game, and the entire atmosphere of the early going was tired and sloppy. Regardless, the Deacs stayed close throughout the scoring drought.
Finally Dinos got hot from outside, and Wake was able to take their first lead of the game at 16-15. From there, the lead for the Deacs in the first half stretched to as much as seven including a nice 9-0 run. Jamie Luckie also contributed in the early going with the rare palming and 3-second calls, likely because people weren't paying him enough attention lately with the recent Karl Hess news. I don't know if hand checks were a point of emphasis this season, but it seems to me that they've been called much more tightly while physical play inside is still allowed. With smaller lineups, this slowed down the pace of play on the perimeter, which favored Virginia Tech's style for much of the half. Still, Wake was able to start to dictate play in the waning minutes of the first half, going into the break with a 32-28 lead. Devin Thomas was the Deacs' best overall player in the first half, letting play come to him by creating out of double teams early and hitting followup shots and free throws late, with Dinos and Codi also turning in strong performances.
Wake started the second half out strong, growing their lead quickly to 10 with open jump shots and transition scoring. From there, the teams traded baskets back and forth for the next five minutes or so as the lead dwindled and bounced around in single digits. The top of the key was the friendliest spot for Wake three-point shooters as Dinos and Darius each knocked down big threes to keep the Hokies at arm's length. Freshman standout Justin Bibbs, in his first game back after a concussion kept him out for four games, gave the Deacs trouble off the dribble, and most of Virginia Tech's offense came through the inside game.
At about the halfway point in the second half, as the Deacs looked comfortable with a lead yo-yo'ing back and forth between seven and ten, my mind went to the same place as, I'm guessing, most Wake Forest fans...this looks familiar. The same question arose as in many recent weeks: Would the Deacs be able to stretch a lead instead of letting it dwindle away? A dagger three after a strong defensive set saw the Deacs' lead dwindle to a single point, and it felt like the more of the same rising to the surface in Winston. That seemed indeed to be a turning point for Virginia Tech, who kept the game close the rest of the way, repeatedly cutting the lead to one, but not leading until 65-64 with 1:41 to go.
After Tech took the lead, Mitchell Wilbekin nailed an open three in the corner to pull back the lead for the Deacs off a beautiful Devin pass out of a double team in the post. So once again, Wake looked at a two point lead with 1:22 to go. The lead was passed back and forth until the Deacs led by two again under a minute to go when Coach Manning took his penultimate timeout to set up his defense. The defensive look was flooding passing lanes, switching on every screen, and using their length, and it quickly forced Tech Coach Buzz Williams to take his final timeout. The Hokies missed a corner three and Wilbekin went to the line to shoot two. The Deacs' best free throw shooter promptly missed the first. Then he missed the second. By some miracle though, Wake got possession out of a scramble for the rebound off the second missed free throw, and the Deacs went right back to Wilbekin on the inbound, who was quickly fouled.
The freshman eventually showed poise under pressure, nailing the next two free throws and stretching the Deacs' lead to four with the shotclock off. That four point lead hardly sealed the deal. Tech went down and hit an unbelievably wide open three pointer, cutting the lead to one. From there, Wake managed to run the clock down to 11.1 before the Hokies fouled Madison Jones. Jones hit both of his free throws and Coach Manning took his final timeout. I almost blacked out as I saw another open three from the corner for Virginia Tech bounce off too strong and go out of bounds off Wake Forest with .4 seconds to go. That .4 seconds took another minute or so (and about a week off the end of my life), but Tech failed to get the tying shot off in time and missed it anyway as the Deacs held on to win by three.
When neither team shoots the ball particularly well, controls pace of play, or forces a bunch of turnovers, it's often the small things that make the ultimate difference. Wake won the rebounding battle, got to the line, and didn't take too many bad or quick shots. The positives remain the same: Codi's transition play, Dinos's quick high release, Wilbekin's mellifluous stroke. So do the negatives: scoring droughts, turnovers, free throw shooting, defensive mistakes. Similarly (and perhaps counterintuitively), when Devin and Codi leave the floor, the team lacks composure and discipline. Codi played an almost perfectly efficient game on the offensive end going 7-7 from the floor, dishing three assists, and committing just one turnover (I refuse to count the terrible charge call against him with 5:05 to go). For Codi's obvious weaknesses in jump and free throw shooting, he plays within himself, and when he lowers his shoulder to the basket in the halfcourt or leads the break in transition, he always looks under control and ready to score.
The compelling storylines in recent weeks have been Coach Manning's end game tactics: throwing the team into the fire and testing their mettle in pressure situations without micromanagement from the bench. The Deacs built leads in each of the games against Syracuse, Clemson, and Florida State, only to throw them away with scoring droughts and fatigued defense. Codi Miller-McIntyre and Devin Thomas continue to be the most consistent performers this season, though the losing stretch also saw breakout performances from Cornelius Hudson and Dinos Mitoglou. Bench play has also been a strong storyline of this season — Coach Manning seems to like to use Aaron Rountree as a defensive specialist, switching him on for Leonard and Mitoglou in late-half and pressure situations. Rountree has been a boom-bust guy on defense, always looking to help double and play extremely aggressively and actively, sometimes forcing turnovers or blocking shots, and other times overpursuing and giving the other teams easy looks. His minutes today were among the highest of the season, and he generally made the most of them on both ends, though he will likely never fill up the stat sheet.
If there is such a thing as a "must-win game" between two teams with little-to-no hope of reaching postseason play, today felt that way in Winston-Salem. Though there still isn't a ton of experience on the roster, the few veterans Wake has are not well-versed in keeping every game close and stealing victories at the end of games. This year's team has only played two games (Arkansas, UNC) this season where they never looked like winning. For a fanbase who, aside from the past five devastating seasons, are used to 20-win seasons and consistently and continually looking strong against the nation's best conference, this year's team has shown flickers of that same competitive fire, that same sense that no team should utterly outmatch the Black and Gold. But while moral victories in close games this season may have been a temporary reprieve in the desert of the past half-decade, the real oasis will be wins, especially wins like today. A win over a hapless Virginia Tech team can hardly feel like a marquee win for Wake Forest, but it feels like progress after so many close losses. The next big step for the Deacs will be not just to win games but to stretch and keep leads late in games. I genuinely feel that Coach Manning will have the Deacs playing competitive basketball no matter who the personnel, no matter who the opponent as long as he coaches at Wake Forest.