CHARLESTON, SC – With 3:42 remaining on the clock, Wake Forest and Towson entered the final media timeout square at 58. The Deacons had trailed twice in the second half, down by two just over a minute prior. The final break from action was the shift that changed it all.
Boopie Miller, who hit a jumper in the paint right before the timeout to even the score, rattled off six-straight points, leading Wake Forest on a 15-3 game-ending run for a 71-61 victory.
The Central Michigan transfer scored 17 of his career-high 25 points in the second half, but none were bigger than a steal following a Wake Forest turnover. With Towson running the offense on a potential lead-taking possession, Miller poked the ball away for a third time on the night, sprinted down the court and laid in the simple layup.
“That was a big momentum changer,” head coach Steve Forbes said. “That’s a great example of turning defense into offense. It was a big play. It goes to show it doesn’t have to be a dunk, didn’t have to be a three. It can be a steal and a layup…10 of the last 11 possessions we got stops. So we won the game playing defense.”
“Coach was always on me about playing defense,” Miller explained. “If I want to play defense, I’m gonna play more.”
The play was a microcosm of Forbes’ message to the team during the previous huddle.
“Get the defensive stop,” Miller said, paraphrasing Forbes. “I feel like they came down and tried to dribble handoff. So we had to communicate on that switch.
“On the offensive end, just getting open and then getting fouled, and knocking down the free throws.”
Miller accomplished that part of the directive too, recording three points from the line in the closing 30 seconds. Joining him there was Hunter Sallis, who provided a one-two punch at the guard position with 24 points — also a career high — on 8-12 shooting. Sallis, a fellow transfer — from Gonzaga — was 4-6 from three.
“Hunter and Boopie had really good games,” Forbes said. “We needed that. We needed them.”
Early in the first half, Towson scored eight-straight points during a two-minute stretch, opening a seven-point lead. The Tigers had made their last five shots and were 9-12 from the field. Wake Forest hadn’t registered a point in over two-and-a-half minutes.
14 of Towson’s 18 points at the time had been scored in the paint and a litany of offensive rebounds gave the Tigers several second-chance opportunities. Towson finished the game with 45 boards to Wake Forest’s 26, and 22 occurred on the offensive end, allowing for 18 second-chance points.
“That’s adversity,” Miller said. “Coach talks about adversity a lot. We got to keep pushing through adversity, just keep fighting, keep pulling, and we’ll came out with it.”
“That’s a lot of possessions left for them to get extra shots,” Forbes added. “In the physicality of the game, there wasn’t a lot being called…but we got to be more physical.”
Many rebound attempts were available because of Towson’s paltry 28% field goal clip in the second half. Late in the half, especially in the critical final four minutes, Wake Forest stood tall and found its footing on the glass.
“I feel like they came out stronger than us,” Miller said. “They wanted to rebound. They wanted to do more than us. I feel like, in the second half, we wanted more.”
“We got the ones when it counted…” Forbes later noted. “We got the right ones. We just found a way to win, and sometimes, in those games, you just got to find a way to do it.”
After clawing back to a 35-33 lead at halftime, spurred on by a 11-5 run in the final 3:36, Wake Forest gritted their way to victory with an evident identity. The Deacs hit 54% of their shots, forced 10 turnovers and scored 22 of 36 points in the paint.
Miller and Sallis were at the point of that final statistic. In the final 20 minutes, there was a concerted effort to take the ball and drive to the hoop.
“Don’t settle,” Forbes said. “Hunter can really do both, he’s a really good three point shooter… But he’s really good off the dribble when he plays off two [feet] and no launching…
“That’s what we were looking for, was getting the lane playing off two, and if you don’t have a shot for yourself, make one for somebody else. And I thought they did better with that as the game went on.”
With starting center Matthew Marsh out for a second-straight game due to an injury suffered at Georgia, sophomore Zach Keller filled in with 23 minutes, notching five rebounds, two blocks and a plus-14 point differential.
“Really proud of him,” Forbes said. “You never know when an opportunity is coming. And when it comes, take advantage…When your number is called you step up.”
Freshmen Marqus Marion and Parker Friedrichsen were a large part of Wake Forest’s success, playing 19 and 17 minutes respectively. Both were impactful on the defensive end, with Marion also snagging two offensive rebounds.
“This is the thing about Marcus [that] I really appreciate about him, and Parker, they know they gotta defend to play…I think a lot of young guys get that confused. They think ‘oh, it’s about my scoring.’ No, it’s about your defending and Marcus is a good defender.”
Now, Wake Forest will take a day-long break and prepare for a team they’ve come to know well, LSU. The Deacs faced off against the Tigers last season in Atlanta, giving up a 20-point lead for a two-point loss.
“Now we need some rest,” Forbes said. “We’ll sleep in and have film. We’ll have a workout tomorrow afternoon, but it’ll be light…you can get a lot done just mentally.”
Sunday’s tilt with the Tigers is set for 3pm.