Plugged In: Wake Forest Has Doubters Thinking Twice
March 9, 2006
By DAVID DROSCHAK
GREENSBORO - For those who thought Wake Forest had packed it in a month ago, think again.
The 12th-seeded Demon Deacons kept their season alive Thursday in the opening round of the ACC Tournament, rallying from a double-digit deficit in the second half to send fifth-seeded Florida State home with a 78-66 victory.
"Everybody's back was turned against us," said senior center Eric Williams, who had 14 points and nine rebounds. "One thing I can't stand is when people aren't looking at me. I enjoy the shine. We finally turned some heads. I'm glad we clicked it on before we were going home for good."
After an 11-2 start, Wake Forest hit the skids hard for the first time since going 12-16 in 1989-90, losing 13 of its final 17 games to fall to the ACC basement one year after finishing the regular season ranked fifth in the nation.
Sure, the loss of Chris Paul to the NBA after his sophomore season hurt, but the Demon Deacons still had Justin Gray and Williams in the hopper, along with seniors Trent Strickland and Chris Ellis.
Most had the Demon Deacons slotted to finish third or fourth in the ACC, and they started the season ranked 18th in the nation.
But after a loss to Duke and two close defeats against Clemson and Maryland to open the ACC season, the Demon Deacons couldn't recover, at one point going through a miserable six-game losing streak.
How low had the Demon Deacons plunged?
Coach Skip Prosser said there were so many downs he couldn't even begin to single one out after the team's biggest win of the year.
"For me, no loss is more palatable than the rest of them," he said. "I just think the harsh reality that we had become irrelevant in the ACC race was disconcerting, to say the least."
A regular-season finale win on Senior Day against No. 25 N.C. State was nice, but it still didn't take the pain away of a season that could have been.
That was until today, when Wake Forest showed some of the heart many expected from this group when practice started back in October.
"The reality is we haven't packed it in," Prosser said. "We lost a slew of games, but we were in games, we had some leads in the second half, we just couldn't finish."
As usual, Prosser than gave a few quotes from Shakespeare and Hamlet.
The translation: "We knew we hadn't quit."
Even when Wake Forest went down 45-34 with 16:45 remaining, there was confidence.
Well, Gray and his teammates were watching the first game of the day in which Miami rallied from a similar deficit to beat Clemson.
"We saw that," Gray said. "That let us know that it's a tournament. You've got one game, one day to live."
One key coaching move by Prosser was inserting freshman Harvey Hale into the lineup in the second half since Gray was able to get just six shots off in the opening 20 minutes, mostly because he was running the point.
Hale played 16 minutes in the second half, at one point throwing up an air ball from 3-point range with Wake Forest clinging to a two-point lead with 2:30 left.
Prosser said they'll talk on the bus about that one, but Hale's ability to free up Gray was big in Prosser's book. So was Hale's scrappy attitude on the defensive end, something the Demon Deacons have been lacking all season.
"I think he missed that 3-pointer by 2-feet, but I don't think we win the game without Harvey Hale," Prosser said.
Gray may have scored 18 of his 25 points over the final 8:25 to seal the deal. However, the Demon Deacons don't cap off the surprise of the day without a defensive effort that held Florida State to 31 percent shooting in the second half and a beastly effort on the boards, holding a 44-26 advantage there.
"There is a great saying: `Better late than never,'" Williams said.
"We had what they call the advantage of no choice," Prosser said. "It's a tremendous advantage to have. If we didn't guard we were going home and our guys didn't want to go home."
In the end, it was the seniors who pulled the Demon Deacons through. A clutch 3-pointer from the baseline by Ellis with 3:43 left gave Wake Forest its first lead, and Gray banged home nine free throws in the final 1:26 after he had missed 2-of-3 on a 3-point attempt with eight minutes left.
"Justin really grabbed a hold of the team and played like a leader for us today," Ellis said.
"This has been a long season for us and coming into this game we just wanted to wipe our slate clean," said Gray. "We said we were 0-0 and the only way we were going to get another game was if we won.
"We have an opportunity to rewrite our season," added Gray. "If we have a good showing here maybe some of the things early on in the season are gone. We're not looking back, though, we're looking forward."
Next up will be fourth-seeded N.C. State, a team Wake Forest beat by double digits six days ago.
Prosser chuckled when asked about having to win four games to win the ACC title, the only hope the Demon Deacons have of making the NCAA Tournament.
"I would rather have that problem right now than be heading back to Winston-Salem to get some BBQ," Prosser said.