CHARLESTON, SC – With eight minutes remaining in the second-half of a hard-fought battle with Utah, Hunter Sallis slammed down an earth-shattering dunk to give Wake Forest a six-point lead and momentum. It would be the most the Deacs led by for the remainder of the game. Utah promptly embarked on an 11-0 run, took the lead and didn’t relinquish it until the final whistle, handing Wake Forest a bitter 77-70 loss.
At halftime, the Deacons had carved out a 10-point advantage, generated by strong defensive play, offensive success, a lack of turnovers and adept rebounding. Without center Matthew Marsh, thus lacking ordinary depth, Wake Forest had only committed five team fouls, allowing for key players to remain on the floor.
Facing two seven-foot centers, who at times were on the court together, the Deacs were only outrebounded by two, and gave up just a pair on the defensive end. Only four turnovers were committed. Wake Forest shot 53% from the floor and nailed seven of 11 three-pointers.
“I feel like the first half, we really did everything that we talked about in our scout,” Sallis said after the game. “We executed well.”
Following two Wake Forest points to open the second half — and create a 12-point lead — Utah began whittling away. First it was four-straight points, then seven, then three. In short order, Wake Forest only led by one. There was a quick Deacons’ response with the aforementioned Sallis exclamation point, but Utah took over from there.
With the Utes showing several different defensive schemes in the second half, Wake Forest’s shooting percentage dipped to 40%.
“I thought against the zone we missed a lot of good looks,” Steve Forbes said. “We just held the ball or over-dribbled. Threw up tough shots in the lane. I thought we got guys wide open on the perimeter and our bigs didn’t flash the middle on the 1-3-1.”
The three-point percentage also cratered with a three-for-15 clip from deep. The opportunities were there, but a one-time unconscious shooting effort came down to Earth.
“I thought we had good looks,” Forbes added. “Not all of them. But I thought a lot of them, we were feet set, shooting it… we didn’t knock them in.”
The Deacs doubled their half-to-half foul total, committing 10. Andrew Carr, who went without being whistled before halftime, was hit with four in a 10-minute interval during the second half.
“We got to have Andrew on [the court] as much as we can, especially in the second half,” Forbes said. “Andrew is a really good player. He does so many things besides scoring. He can defend, he can rebound, he can block shots. He’s a good leader.
“The last two games, it’s hurt us, getting him in foul trouble. So we gotta figure that out.”
Carr earned his fourth foul with 8:57 remaining in the game. Despite being in trouble, he played 17 of 20 possible minutes in the second half. But those three minutes on the bench, along with trying to avoid a fifth foul, coincided with Utah finally taking full advantage of its height. The Utes outrebounded Wake Forest 24-15 in the second and snagged nine offensive boards.
“I think the biggest problem in the second half is giving them nine offensive rebounds…” Forbes said. “That gave them way too many possessions.”
Utah’s size also found its rhythm in the form of Branden Carlson. His 11 first-half points were no small thing, but he exploded with 20 after halftime, draining seven shots, three of which were from behind the line. 14 of those points occurred during Utah’s most critical stretch of eliminating the Wake Forest lead.
He finished with 31 points, four rebounds and five blocks.
“We couldn’t get Carlson under control,” Forbes said. “He’s a really good player. I was obviously worried about him. He did a lot of his damage inside-out.”
Carlson was also successful at drawing and-ones — in a minute-long stretch, he drew two, one on a dunk, another on a three-point conversion. He secured three of the Utes’ four and-one opportunities in the half.
Facing the tough task of guarding Carlson for long portions of the night was Zach Keller. With Marsh sidelined, the sophomore made his first start of the season, playing 29 minutes. While proving to be a gritty defender, Keller snagged five rebounds, also knocking down two three-pointers.
“He got his opportunity tonight and he made the most out of it,” Sallis said. “He’s a great player. He definitely brought the energy tonight. He did a great job.”
Freshman Parker Friedrichsen also drew high marks from Forbes, pulling down six rebounds in 24 minutes, hitting two threes and providing tenacious defense.
Despite the outcome, Sallis highlighted the team’s fight. It was a gritty effort. In less than 24 hours, Wake Forest will have to put together another.
“We’re a good team,” he said. “We’re never gonna just go down without swinging.”
The swinging will start anew against Towson. Tipoff is set for 7pm ET.