WINSTON-SALEM, NC – The score was tied at 79 with 26 seconds left, both teams coming out of a timeout called by Wake Forest. At that moment, just about everyone in a packed LJVM Coliseum expected the ball to go to Hunter Sallis, who at that point had 31 points. But it didn’t. Instead, the ball found itself in the hands of Andrew Carr. For four seconds, the junior forced his position to the left before making the final move — a hard step over Mo Diarra, a hook and, of course, the finish.
The bucket would be the final field goal made in a high-octane, back-and-forth ACC matchup. The Deacs, who trailed for over 16 minutes of the game, found a way to grind out a win.
“The side play when everybody probably thought we were going to Hunter, we went to Andrew,” head coach Steve Forbes said. “Andrew made a heck of a play to score that ball. We got a lot of balance on our team and I think it proved out today.”
With that play out of the timeout, there were several reasons to go to Carr (15 points) for the final shot.
“He’s got a chance to get fouled,” Forbes said. “And you’re going to get a shot at the rim. Andrew’s a clutch player…I just trust him. I trust them all. But it just seemed like the thing to do at the time for a high-percentage shot. And he delivered.”
“He’s a great player,” Sallis, who finished with a career-high 33 points, noted. “That was the biggest thing that we tried to do, just get it inside either to Efton or to AC. I felt like he definitely had the mismatch in that situation. So I think it was a good play call.”
Carr’s make left 17 seconds on the clock, more than enough time for NC State to go down the court and attempt a game-tying or winning shot. In the end, Kevin Keatts’ team went to its hot-handed shooter. DJ Horne, who finished with 31 points, left his final effort short. And, it was Sallis who came down with the all-important rebound, took the foul and put the game away from the free-throw line with two makes.
“I thought the biggest play of the game wasn’t anything that Hunter did on offense,” Forbes said. “It was the defensive rebound that he got to ice the game.”
In the first half, Wake Forest shot 48% from the field and 45% from three-point range, yet still trailed by six. The Deacs allowed NC State to score 45 points in the opening 20 minutes on 52.9% from the floor. Though five turnovers isn’t a standout number, they led to several high-pace transition scores for the Wolfpack. At one point, Wake Forest was forced to weather a 10-0 run, and trailed by double digits on the cusp of halftime. It wasn’t the team’s best half.
But then, Forbes’ team came back to their coach’s program maxims — gritty, grimy, tough, together. In the second half, the Deacs’ shooting jumped to 53.3, while NC State’s dipped to 45.2. Wake Forest turned the ball over just three times and held the opponent scoreless for the final 1:57. It played the type of basketball needed to win a contest as tight as this one.
“I think Coach emphasized before the game this whole week that we had to play together for 40 minutes,” Cam Hildreth said. “And I think we did that today. We started off pretty poor offensively, just taking some bad shots, everyone on the team. And then we came together at halftime and reevaluated, flipped the script and came out the second half and played our way. We really played hard together. We fought [until] the end.”
“[GGTT] didn’t show out in the first half, I thought [NC State] won that battle,” Forbes later added. “I thought the second half would be probably a lot of mental, as far as being tougher. Having tougher possessions on offense and not turning it over. Not getting sped up, getting to our spot, either playing off two [feet] and shooting it or kicking it out. Stepping up, making big shots, getting stops when we needed them and getting 50-50 balls.
“[It was being] more mentally tough than physically tough.”
Mental toughness was needed especially in handling the emotions of the game. After the team’s last matchup ended with four technical fouls in the final minutes — and Keatts being ejected prior — more chippiness ensued Saturday. There were hard fouls, lots of talking and a set of offsetting techs given to Hildreth and Horne.
“When it gets chippy, it’s just one of those things that happens…” Hildreth said. “In that situation, there was a lot of back-and-forth talking, but it’s just part of the game. Both players are competitive. And it’s just kind of what you do within sport[s]. Just shows how much you care and how much you want to win.”
Toughness was also needed to change the things that led to a January collapse in Raleigh. Then, Wake Forest dealt with foul trouble all night. This time, it was much of the same early. Efton Reid earned his second foul less than three minutes into the contest. But, from that point forward he kept his composure.
Reid’s third foul didn’t come until four minutes remained in regulation, allowing him to play 24 total. In contrast, NC State had three players reach four fouls — Casey Morsell, Michael O’Connell and Ben Middlebrooks. Wake Forest entered the bonus at the midpoint of the second, and shot 12 critical times from the free-throw line. The Wolfpack took just 11 the entire game.
But, Wake Forest’s improvement in the foul department — winning that battle today — doesn’t change the fact that 16 minutes with Reid not on the court had to be filled. 12 of them were taken by Matthew Marsh, who faced off almost exclusively with DJ Burns, NC State’s 275-pound center. A year ago, Burns scored 31, mostly on Marsh. Today, he was held to 14. Reid and Marsh got the job done.
“What a credit to Matt Marsh, who a year ago, everybody walked out of here blaming him and blaming me for losing the game to NC State because [of] DJ…today, he has no assists and five turnovers because we mixed up the coverages on it. And I think he was a little confused if we were coming in with the double or if we weren’t. And we did a really good job with that.
“Matt’s grown up enough this year to guard him by himself. And he did. We didn’t have to double every time. And that’s hard. That made it harder on him. And I thought that was a big factor.”
This win was the first close game Wake Forest has had to deal with since a five-point loss to Pitt a week ago. The Deacs hadn’t won a game within five points since Jan. 6 against Miami. Doing that tonight was a point of growth.
“Getting one of these gritty wins is…good for us,” Hildreth said. “It shows us that we’re taking that next step in maturity. So being able to still win these types of games and not just fall short, especially at home, it’s important to win.”
In an in-state rivalry game, Wake Forest “made just enough plays to win,” as Forbes put it. Now, it will have to get itself ready for much of the same in terms of tough competition. Monday night, the Deacs will travel across the state for a game circled on the calendar every year, Duke in Cameron Indoor.
It’s a game Sallis has been waiting for in his first year as a Demon Deacon.
“That’s something I dream of, growing up just seeing big games there,” he said. “And now, me finally being able to play there, I’m excited. I’m excited to get a win down there.”
Tip off is set for 7pm on ESPN.
Extra Points: 12,571 fans took in Saturday’s game at The Joel, the most all season and second-most in the Steve Forbes era ... Forbes on the crowd: “Oh my god, tremendous, I mean tremendous, energy.” ... Wake Forest will go live in practice tomorrow to prepare for a Monday matchup with Duke ... Boopie Miller and Hildreth both joined Carr and Sallis in double digits, while Efton Reid added nine ... Parker Friedrichsen scored six off two important three-pointers ... Kevin Keatts said Wake Forest “deserves to be an NCAA Tournament team.”