The Wake Forest Demon Deacons (11-6-1, 5-4-1 ACC) saw their hopes of ACC hardware go up in smoke in Durham on November 7th. The Deacs started the ACC Tourney looking like a serious threat, dismantling the Virginia Cavaliers (6-9-3, 2-6-1 ACC) at Spry, but a trip up Tobacco Road would go disastrously, and the Deacs would lose in controversial fashion. Ultimately, though, the Deacs’ body of work was enough to earn them an NCAA Tournament berth, and a tournament home game for that matter. The Deacs will get at least one more game at Spry this season, as they’ll host the Mercer Bears (10-7-1, 6-1-1 SoCon) in a first round matchup. But before looking ahead to that game, let’s take a look back at their ACC Tournament run.
The Deacs entered the ACC tournament as the sixth seed, so hosted the eleventh seeded team in the conference, UVA. The Hoos have traditionally dominated the Deacs, especially in postseason play, but the UVA program is in a rut at the minute, ending two straight years under .500 overall. They needed to win this game, and likely the next couple, to have any chance of making the tournament this season. However, they never got out of the blocks, with the Deacs dominating wire to wire, earning a 3-0 victory. This UVA looked a shadow of the ones of years past, not showing nearly the same counter attacking venom nor defensive solidity that we’re accustomed to seeing. The Deacs seemed to never lose control of the game, keeping their foot on the ball and working it right through the Cavaliers to create a litany of chances throughout the game.
In the first half, UVA could hardly get out of their side of the field, and it just seemed like a matter of time for the Deacs to open the scoring as they kept finding space behind and between the defensive and midfield lines. The first goal came in the 21st minute, as Garrison Tubbs would find some space on the right side and take it back into the middle of the field, looking to play it inside to Omar Hernandez. The ball was deflected by Erick Kilosho, and ended up bouncing past Rafael Caipo, with Hernandez picking it up on the other side to go one on one with the keeper. He would slot it in at the near post on his right foot and give Wake the lead. Although UVA made a couple of substitutions after the goal, but the state of the game didn’t change, as Wake continued to dominate. Wake would continue to pile on the pressure and get a golden opportunity to double their lead in the 41st minute. Julian Kennedy would go on a great run from the left wing into the box and be tripped up by Kilosho to add to his nightmare game. A penalty kick was awarded, and Jake Swallen stepped up to take it, but his shot would be saved by Holden Brown. The Deacs wouldn’t have to wait long for their second goal though, as Swallen would jog over to take the ensuing corner kick and send it into the box. Holden Brown would punch at the ball weakly and let it over his head, where it would bounce to Kyle Holcomb at the back post, who would hit it on the half volley and in. It took a moment for the official to rule it a goal, as Paul Wiese cleared it away before it could hit the net, but it was clear to the linesman that the ball had crossed the line, and he raised his flag to indicate that it was a goal. As the buzzer sounded to end the half moments later, the Deacs went into the locker room with a seemingly insurmountable two goal lead, with UVA offering them little challenge.
As the second half began, the Deacs kept their foot on the ball and continued to create chances, working it into the UVA box with ease as they tried to commit numbers forward. UVA still could get nothing going on the other end, but the Deacs also couldn’t find that third goal to put the game on ice. In the 69th minute though, the Deacs put the game to bed, with Garrison Tubbs winning a scuffed clearance on the right side of the UVA box and cutting by Michael Tsicoulias to get into space on the right flank. He would send a ball across that would be deflected by David Wrona as he tried to jump over the ball and find its way to Leo Guarino at the penalty spot, who would stroke it into the far upper corner to get his first career goal and put the game to bed for Wake. The final buzzer would sound to bring a close to proceedings, with Wake having earned a dominant win over a team that they always struggle against.
As for man of the match in this game, there were a few players who had great performances for the Deacs. Both center backs were very sharp, with Prince Amponsah and Nico Benalcazar keeping the Hoos’ attack silent all night. Omar Hernandez saw a return to form as he looked dangerous all night, also adding a goal. But my pick has to be Garrison Tubbs, who was immense on both sides of the ball. He won his duels, kept the UVA wide players from getting any joy, and also got loose consistently going forward up that right flank. He had a pair of assists to show for his wonderful performance, and created some other chances in addition to that. He was a huge key to Wake’s win in this game, and I think was the clear man of the match.
With the victory over UVA, Wake earned a matchup with the third seeded team in the ACC, the Duke Blue Devils, at Koskinen Stadium. It ended up being a frustrating game for the Deacs, as they would fall 3-2 in controversial circumstances, and also have to take out a couple of players due to injury, as a couple of late fouls from Duke players would take out Omar Hernandez in the first half, and a challenge late in the second half would cause Nico Benalcazar to come out. It was a game that the Deacs will feel that they should have gotten more out of, but ultimately, they’ll have to recover and recalibrate for the NCAA Tournament game now ahead of them.
The game had a cagey start, with neither team able to create many chances. Duke was getting the better of the play, though, as their press was disrupting Wake’s ability to work the ball out of the back and into dangerous spots. The game was begging for a big moment to break things wide open, and it came in the 27th minute when a corner floated to the back post was met by Garrison Tubbs, and deflected off of the arm of Ian Murphy. A penalty kick was awarded for Wake, and although Jake Swallen would see his shot saved, this time by Eliot Hamill, he collected the rebound and slotted it home to give Wake the lead. The commentators harped on the fact that they did not think this was a penalty, as Murphy was turned around on the play, I think it was the right call, as I cannot say that the position that Murphy’s arm was in could be considered a natural position.
The Deacs’ lead was short lived though, as a magnificent free kick from Thorleifur Ulfarsson evened the game up in the 30th minute. It was a wonderful effort from just outside the area, and left no chance for Trace Alphin to keep the ball out. It went from bad to worse for Wake, as Ulfarsson scored another only a minute later, with a wonderful ball from Shakur Mohammed found its way through a big gap in the Wake backline, sending the Icelandic forward in on goal, and he would make no mistake in slotting it by Alphin. Wake’s momentum had evaporated in mere moments, and now the Deacs were in need of a goal before the half to try and stop Duke from entirely flipping the momentum. They should have had an opportunity to do just that in the 32nd minute, when the ball would bounce to Omar Hernandez, who was chopped down in the area by Santa Ihara, who took a full swing to try and clear the ball and got nothing but Hernandez’s plant leg. The official thought nothing of it, though, and allowed play to continue as Hernandez lay in a heap in the area. He would be taken out and not return to the game.
The Deacs would get their goal before half, however, as in the last minute of time, Nico Benalcazar would get on the end of a Jake Swallen corner kick and send his glancing header into the back of the net to tie the game up and give the Deacs some momentum heading into the half. Coming out of the break, Wake was riding that wave of momentum, having a very strong start to the half, and really limiting Duke for much of the remainder of the game, keeping their foot on the ball and getting some decent chances going forward. They had a major opportunity on the counter attack around the 70th minute, with Julian Kennedy finding all kinds of space down the right flank, breaking into the area where he was shoved down by Santa Ihara. The official again thought nothing of it, and they played on. Ultimately, Wake was punished for not taking advantage of their period of good play, with Cameron Kerr cutting the ball back across the area to Jai Bean, who would find the side netting for his first goal of the season and give Duke the lead. In spite of a late Wake push for an equalizer, Duke were able to keep the Deacs out, and secure the victory. Both teams wound up ending the game with ten players, with Wake’s Baba Niang and Duke’s Conor Kelly receiving their second yellows in the last 5 minutes.
Man of the match in this one was an easy pick, as Thorleifur Ulfarsson dominated Wake in this one. Sometimes a player’s performance and his impact are not equal, but in this case Ulfarsson was not only impactful, scoring a pair of goals, but also put on a great performance otherwise, constantly looking like a danger going forward for Duke, finding spaces between and behind Wake’s lines to operate. With that being said, though, it is difficult to overlook how the officiating influenced this game. Although I find blaming the officials to be a cop-out in many cases, it’s hard to overlook the fact that this referee did not award two penalties, both of which I thought were quite clearly penalties. With that being said, though, in spite of the poor officiating, Wake had every opportunity to win this game in the second half, and they’ll be kicking themselves for not having done so.
During Monday night’s NCAA Tournament selection show, the Deacs found out their postseason fate, drawing the Mercer Bears, champions of the Southern Conference, as their opponents in the first round. Mercer have been on an incredible run of late; if you told anyone at the beginning of October that this team would end up in the NCAA Tournament they would think you were insane. UNCG seemed to be destined for the SoCon bid, ripping through their non-conference schedule, including a win over then #2 Clemson. At the same time, the Bears sat at a paltry 3-6-1, and 0-1-1 in conference that included a 3-0 demolition at the hands of that same UNCG squad. But the Bears very suddenly got white hot, winning 7 of their next eight games and going undefeated in conference. To end this stretch, they defeated Furman 4-0 in their first SoCon playoff game and then came from 2-0 behind to win a thrilling SoCon final by a 4-3 scoreline against Belmont, who defeated UNCG in the tournament.
Although Mercer don’t exactly have an impressive resume, losing both of their games against tournament teams (Georgia St. and Lipscomb), they’re on an impressive run right now, especially going forward. They’ve scored 24 goals in their last 8 games, and will be a real threat to a Wake team that has had some trouble keeping the ball out of the net this year. Tactically, they come out in a 4-3-3 with a holding midfielder, and press very high up the field. They look to create overloads in the wide areas and switch the ball a lot to stretch teams out. They’ve got a very talented front three that has given teams fits in these last 8 games, the question is whether they can be as dangerous against a top opponent, and one that likes to pass through the press. As for players to watch, I’d keep my eye on #10 Dylan Gaither for the Bears. He’s scored 13 goals and set up 5 this year, including 5 goals and 2 assists in the SoCon tournament. He’s got great feet, quickness, and is a solid finisher if he can get himself in a good spot in front of goal. He also plays a key role in the press as one of the forwards, and has shown himself to be a player with a great work rate that can win the ball back high up the field. For Wake, #12 Takuma Suzuki is a key player tonight. As one of the deep midfielders in Bobby Muuss’ 4-2-3-1, Suzuki tends to be the tone setter for this team, the player to work the ball so he can cycle possession and keep things moving smoothly for Wake. Tonight, he’ll be tested by this Mercer high press, and he’ll need to be up to the challenge, not just by continuing to make good decisions and play the right passes, but also by standing up to what is a physical Mercer team.
Kickoff is set for 6:00 tonight, with the winner traveling to #13 FIU for the next round.