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Evan Harris/Blogger So Dear

Wake Forest’s newfound identity prevails in comeback win over Florida

After trailing by nine in the second half, the Deacs clawed back with toughness and grit

WINSTON-SALEM, NC – Entering the final media timeout with 4:03 remaining on the clock, Wake Forest faced a tie game against a highly-rated team in Florida. A resistant path to the finish line seemed all but certain. That is, until the Deacs rattled off five-straight points, nabbed a back-cut, and-one bucket by Hunter Sallis and shot its way to a 82-71 victory from the free-throw line.

Prior to the game, head coach Steve Forbes told a member of the ESPN broadcast crew that the team’s identity, or lack thereof, was something he was not pleased with. In the victory over Florida, Wake Forest found one.

“I want people to think that we play hard, smart, together,” Forbes said. “That we share the ball, and that we’re really gritty and grimy and tough on defense. We rebound with two hands and we execute. And no matter what we do or what we run, if we do those things, we got a great chance to win. I thought that was an identity win. Tonight, I thought we did all those things.”

To Forbes, the identity revealed itself from the jump, when Wake Forest didn’t “fall asleep.” But the Deacs truly found it early in the second half. Prior to the first media break out of halftime, Florida embarked on a 7-0 run and extended its lead to nine. Forbes responded by calling a timeout.

“I said ‘Hey man, this is it now. We gotta fight back, punch them back. Gotta come back. You gotta get stops. You gotta score,’” Forbes recounted.

His message triggered a 6-0 scoring streak for the Deacs via an Andrew Carr and-one and Hunter Sallis three-pointer.

Courtesy of Wake Forest basketball

“I think we did a really good job of just trying to stay within ourselves and not get too panicked out there,” Carr said. “We’ve been trying to find our identity, knowing when you’re coming into these games, we need to be the tougher team.”

Wake Forest went on to make seven of its next eight shots and retake the lead on a Carr three. The senior finished the game with 22 points on 8-13 shooting, with Sallis producing a team-high 24, including 16 points in the second half.

“Those guys aren’t gonna go away unless you make them,” Florida head coach Todd Golden said. “We just weren’t ever able to really get that thing over the hump. To [Wake’s] credit, they made some big shots and allowed themselves to climb back in that thing.”

“They popped us, but we didn’t lay down,” Forbes later added. “We didn’t ever lay down. We fought back…They fight, man, they fight. They don’t always play perfect. I don’t coach perfect. But they fight and they represent, and you can’t ask for much more than that.”

The Deacs entered the double-bonus at the 5:53 mark with a three-point lead. From then on, the team scored ten points from the line. In the second half, Wake Forest more than doubled its attempts from the charity stripe.

“We always try to play aggressive…” Hildreth said. “We were in the bonus pretty early, so we were like, ‘let’s not settle for no shots.’ Just keep driving to the basket. Then they kept falling…Free points, they helped us down the stretch.”

In the second half, Wake Forest also got back to what works. After going 4-12 from three and 39% from the field in the first half, the Deacons only took four shots from deep in the second. Along with the free-throw attempts, Forbes’ squad upgraded its field-goal percentage to 62% in the final 20 minutes.

“I think you take what they give you,” Forbes said. “I think we’re really good at that on offense. I think we knew tonight, we’re gonna be able to drive-kick. We were able to drive and get fouled too.”

“Our guards are physical. They played physical, they played through contact…I thought our guards did, especially in the second half, a lot better job of handling the physicality of the game.”

In those ensuing minutes, when Wake Forest put Florida away with a 10-2 run, it did so with resiliency on the defensive end. The team beared down and got stops.

“That was the whole key to the game,” Forbes said. “We’re going to score. But at some point…[when] we string stops… when you get three stops in a row, that’s deadly. I was really proud of that.”

And then the team rebounded. Florida, a top-ten offensive rebounding team in the nation, finished with seven to Wake Forest’s six. Overall, the Deacs outrebounded the Gators 34-33.

“That’s pretty grimy, tough, and that’s grabbing the ball with two hands,” Forbes said. “I thought Matt Marsh and Zack Keller did a great job in there, blocking out, grabbing rebounds.”

Just like Wake Forest had to find its overall identity, it had to redefine its performance on the boards. In three close losses to Georgia, Utah and LSU, the rebounding was not up to par. Forbes responded by ramping up the pressure.

“When we got back from Charleston, we had some tough practices,” Forbes said. “I have been hard on them…We can’t get better if we don’t go hard. So, we put that bubble up and we started holding people accountable to box out and all those things. We got to continue to do it.”

In those lessons after Charleston, in that process of finding an identity through the team’s previous failures, a message was sent.

“Coach Forbes made it a real big statement that we need to come together and realize who we are as a team,” Hildreth said. “Then, when we do these things [we see how] good of a team we really can be.”

“I’m just proud of everyone on the team. We did everything we needed to do. We never gave up. We’re a hard working team. We fight hard, and we got a great win tonight.”