Two weeks ago, the Wake Forest Demon Deacons found themselves at just 15-12, 6-9 after a difficult 99-94 loss to Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium. They came up painfully short in that game, as they did the first time they faced the Blue Devils, but still did not have any wins in that series to show for it. Their backs were against the wall, but they have battled back in a big way. They have truly been the ‘Comeback Kids’ over the past few weeks.
Wake Forest’s first game after the Duke loss came against the Pittsburgh Panthers. It was a game Wake Forest absolutely needed to win. They were definitely the better team and they were at home. Still, they found themselves down 19 points midway through the first half against Pitt. Things were bleak. Mentally weak teams would have folded, but the Deacons showed that they are far from mentally weak.
The Deacons cut the deficit to a manageable 12 points at halftime, and continued to fight back until they eventually took the lead with just under 2 minutes to go in the game. They survived that one and had new life.
Wake Forest then had one week to prepare for the #8 Louisville Cardinals. Wake had very good advanced metrics, and a number of close losses to excellent opponents, but still lacked a signature win. I wrote, and many others agreed, that the Louisville game was the program’s biggest game since taking on Kentucky in the 2nd round of the 2010 NCAA Tournament. What happened? Louisville’s size and athleticism enabled them to take a 32-18 lead over Wake Forest and they took the air out of the LJVM. How did the Deacons respond? The same way they did a week prior against Pittsburgh. They drew to within just 1 point at halftime, and went up by as many as 11 points midway through the second half. Over roughly 20 minutes of basketball, Wake Forest outscored the #8 team in the country by 25 points. The Deacons hit some big time three pointers between 3 and 2 minutes remaining to essentially seal the game. As strength and conditioning coach, Ryan Horn, likes to say, “mission accomplished,” but Wake still had work to do.
The Deacons entered Saturday’s contest at Virginia Tech with the opportunity to get to 9-9 in ACC play, a seemingly relevant metric to NCAA Tournament Selection Committees. They were going against a Virginia Tech team that had only been defeated once all season (Notre Dame) in Cassell Coliseum. It was senior night for Virginia Tech in front of a sellout crowd. What happened? Virginia Tech spread Wake Forest out, attacked them off the dribble, and built up a 13-point lead with around 6 minutes to go in the first half. Wake Forest’s star player, John Collins, picked up 3 first half fouls, and scored 0 points in the first half. Things weren’t looking good. For Wake Forest, however, they had been in this situation before.
There were a lot of similarities between the Virginia Tech first half and the Louisville first half. Both times they faced double-digit deficits, but both times Wake Forest climbed back to make it a game by the half. Wake Forest trailed Louisville by just 1 at half, while Wake trailed Virginia Tech by just 5 at the half on Saturday afternoon.
The second halves did not exactly resemble one another, however, as Virginia Tech was the aggressor coming out of the half and built the lead back up to 11. Against Louisville, Wake Forest was going NBA Jam and getting on fire. Still, Wake did not panic, and finally improved defensive intensity, while maintaining excellent offensive efficiency. Wake fought back to take a 66-65 lead with 11 minutes remaining, which was Wake’s first lead since it was just 3-2. Wake was able to make big shots and get enough stops down the stretch to emerge victorious. Yet another comeback was complete.
This trend is a credit to the culture and mindset that Danny Manning and his staff have set at Wake. These comebacks don’t happen in recent years. They don’t happen not only because of talent, but also because of mental toughness. I’m impressed with the leadership of this team, and I respect that Manning lets them play through adversity by not calling timeouts during tough stretches. The team knows what to do, they just need to play through it.
The heart that the team showed is likely going to lead to the program’s first NCAA Tournament berth since 2010. I feel that the program only needs to beat Boston College in the ACC Tournament to get in. Even with a loss, I think Wake has a very formidable case, though Selection Sunday would be stressful. They are likely headed back to the dance not just because of talent, but because of mental fortitude. It’s been a fun ride as of late. Let’s keep going.