Fresh off the home victory Saturday against the Virginia Tech Hokies, Wake Forest picked up its third conference win of the season against Tobacco Road rivals North Carolina State tonight, 88-84. Codi Miller-McIntyre led the way for the Deacs with 23 points and 5 assists.
The Wolfpack entered the game 14-9 on the season and 5-5 in the conference, squarely in the middle of the ACCand hot off an overtime victory of their own on Saturday on the road against Georgia Tech. In the first matchup between the two teams this season in Raleigh the Wolfpack won by 13 points. State also entered the game winning three of the last four games against the Deacs.
The starting lineup for the Deacs was the same as it was against Virginia Tech, with Dinos Mitoglou getting another opportunity to start. Both teams attacked the post early as Devin Thomas got off to a great start inside and running the floor. To be frank, the game started strangely for the Deacs. Codi hit a three. 6'2" Mitchell Wilbekin denied a post pass. Devin dunked it hard. The Deacs started a perfect 2-2 from the line. Greg McClinton had an outstanding putback dunk. The crowd got LOUD. The alternate universe Deacs got off to a great 13-5 start (off a 9-0 run) going into the under 16:00 timeout. Ralston Turner, senior guard for NC State, hit a couple free throws out of the timeout, which led me to this brief aside.
**Turner is one of those players that seems (to this Wake Forest fan) like he's been at State for about a decade. Some players just feel that way, like Ed Cota, who I'm convinced played for UNC for at least nine seasons. Brief research shows me that each player was a student at their respective school for five years with a redshirt, but I'm dubious.**
It was Cat Barber who really heated up for the Pack, hitting two threes and pulling State just 5 points back at the under 12 timeout. Barber stayed hot off his excellent performance Saturday, hitting three first half 3-pointers and running up his scoring tally to 13 before falling to the court hurt and taking himself out of the game (he would shortly return). State could get no closer than 5 for the rest of the first half as Wake pushed the tempo and the lead out to 10. The lead would stay at 10 until 4:38 to go in the half. Cat Barber's three from the wing bounced high off the rim, and when Wake failed to grab the rebound, which led to a State putback. Manning took a rapid timeout, leading to a big three from Hudson and an 11 point lead at the under 4:00 timeout. After that timeout the Deacs absolutely exploded offensively, and at the end of the first half, the Deacs led 51-30. 51 points is the highest scoring total in a half of basketball for the Deacs this year, and they got there with 19-29 shooting (65%) from the floor and 9-15 from 3 (60%). They also out-rebounded State 19-17, recorded 7 blocks to the Pack's 0, and limited turnovers to just 6. It is absolutely no exaggeration to say this was Wake Forest's best half of basketball this season.
I don't think it's a stretch to suggest it was Coach Manning's best half of the season as well, though his counterpart on the State bench, Mark Gottfried, looked generally baffled about how to stop shooters and seemed only to focus on his team's efforts on the offensive boards. Manning's rotations were effective, he got very well spread out scoring, and his big timeout at 4:38 led to the Deacs' tremendous run to end the half. Credit is also clearly due to the Deacs, led in scoring by Codi Miller-McIntyre with 10 and with Dinos and Cornelius Hudson each scoring 9 (each 3-4 from 3-point range).
Like most Wake fans I'm sure, I worried about how well the Deacs would hold one of their biggest leads of the season, especially against a team with good shooters and aspirations of finishing in the top half of the conference and vying for a tournament bid. Finishing games has been a real problem for this year's Wake team. End game management, free throw shooting, scoring droughts, and fatigue have sunk the Deacs in close contests all year. The second half was a test of Wake's ability to keep up the great start.
Wake did not get off to a great start in the second half as State cut the lead to 18 after a couple Wake turnovers. Wake would only score 6 points in the first four minutes of the half in fact, though their lead remained above 20 points as State largely failed to take advantage. The Deacs happily settled for trading baskets for a few minutes at that point, though Cat Barber troublingly got hot again. There's always someone, it seems. Even as Wake stretched their lead to 24, Barber continued to trouble the Deacs with a crazy-looking shot chart, running his scoring total up to and then above his season high.
The trading baskets trend continued through the 10:17 mark, at which point Greg McClinton, who had been limping slightly, began to show visible pain in what looked like his knee. Aside from Rountree's hand injury and Daniel Green's perpetual health problems, Wake has been very fortunate this season avoiding injuries, but McClinton's contributions this season would be sorely missed if his knee injury from last year came back.
After McClinton exited, Manning signaled to the team that they should slow down their tempo considerably, and NC State cut the lead to 14. The slowed down tempo allowed NC State to get into their halfcourt game, and their dribble drive led to some open 3-point chances that the Pack took advantage of. A couple hot potato possessions for Wake, missed free throws, turnovers, and lackluster motion cut the lead down to 10, leading to a Manning timeout with 6:53 to go in the game. Out of the timeout, the Deacs didn't look much better, and State cut the lead to 6. A lesser man would complain about terrible missed travel and hard foul calls against State, but I'm not that man. Wake's collapse was squarely on their long scoring drought ( on the wrong end of a 20-2 run), as the 24 point lead with 11:13 left petered to 76-71 with 4:21 to go. Aside from the big lead that came before it, the late game shakiness looked all too familiar for Wake fans this year. In fact, five games this season ended with a Wake loss after earning a double digit lead. After the 51 point offensive explosion in the first half, regression to the mean saw a much more closely matched second half.
By my tally, State's Caleb Martin got away with four travels before his fifth was finally called against him, and the Deacs went into the under 4:00 timeout up 7. At this point, I have to question what Mark Gottfried told his team in the timeout as his team really failed to play with the same urgency and poise that got them back into the game. With the lead firmly holding at 7, Madison Jones recorded a huge steal at the 2:21 mark, got fouled, and hit 1 of 2 free throws. The 8 point lead for Wake would grow to 10 as the clock went under 90 seconds, and Devin Thomas picked up a basket, a board, and a pair of free throws in consecutive possessions, giving him his eleventh double-double of the season and the fifth in his last six games.
With 40.5 seconds left in the game and the Deacons up 9, after a missed State shot and tussle for position, Devin Thomas and Cody Martin locked arms, and Cody threw Devin to the ground. A double technical was assessed, and Codi Miller-McIntyre was assessed a foul away from the play, so NC State ended up shooting. To this Wake Forest fan, it looked like Devin Thomas got thrown to the ground and NC State got free throws out of it. Regardless, on the ensuing possession, State puzzlingly allowed Wake to run 13 more seconds off the clock before fouling, though Devin missed both free throws and State came quickly down and scored, cutting the lead to 5 again. With 17 seconds to go, Cornelius Hudson stepped up and made one of two free throws, keeping it only a two-possession game. On the ensuing possession, Miller-McIntyre was called for a very soft foul on a State layup and the lead was cut to 3. State sent Hudson back to the free throw line with 9.2 to go and he again made just one of two. With a 4 point lead on the final possession of the game, Codi made up for his mistake and stole the ball, and the Deacs ran the clock down.
This game was a great win for Wake Forest as they enter a very winnable stretch of games @GT and home against Miami before their first matchup with Virginia this year. The second half exposed some of the same flaws Wake fans have seen this season, but for two straight games the Deacs have held on and withheld the opposing storm. With the win, Wake goes to 11-12 on the season and 3-7 in the ACC.
A few closing thoughts now as the Deacs close in on a .500 record as the calendar turns to February. An interesting story this season has been watching the playing time that Danny Manning has given to role players like Andre Washington and Aaron Rountree. Washington, who has not seen much meaningful time this season, made efficient use of his time, logging a block and a face up jumper (and a moving screen). Darius Leonard had also seen his starting role slip away and his minutes fall as well, and after a stretch of scoreless games, he added 10 bench points on 4/6 shooting. Madison Jones may be the most improved player over the course of the season for the Deacs. When he started this year, he looked lost on the floor, he was turnover prone, and he added little outside of good pressure defense on similarly sized guards. Today was an excellent example of the progress he has made this season, playing within himself, taking high percentage shots attacking the glass, taking care of the ball (he even leads the conference in Assists: Turnover ratio), and making efficient use of his bench minutes. Steady improvement seems to be the mantra of this Danny Manning team, and this win feels great for Wake fans who haven't seen many of them in recent years.
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