WINSTON-SALEM — Rick Pitino knows what an NCAA tournament team looks like, having taken three different schools to the Final Four and winning a pair of national championships during his Hall of Fame career. So it’s not just an idle compliment when the Louisville coach says that Wake Forest is an NCAA tournament team. The Deacons certainly pass the eye test and their 88-81 upset of Pitino’s eighth-ranked Cardinals on Wednesday gave them the signature win their rapidly improving resume badly needed. Whether the emotional victory will be enough to push coach Danny Manning’s team over the top and into the field of 68 won’t be determined until the tournament committee sets its brackets a little more than a week from now. And there’s still work to do, with one more regular season game and the ACC tournament left to play. But no matter how things turn out on Selection Sunday, the mere fact that Wake is being mentioned so prominently in the NCAA conversation is a significant sign of progress for a program six years removed from its last postseason appearance. “This is huge,” said sophomore center John Collins, who made a strong statement of his own for individual honors with 25 points and 11 rebounds against the Cardinals. “It shows that we’re moving in the right direction at a very good time. “I think our record was missing a win against a ranked opponent and we came together and got it. We came down in the clutch, hit some shots, played some D and came out here with a win. We played how we needed to play.” The Deacons are now 17-12, 8-9 in the ACC. Their upset of the Cardinals was their first win against a ranked team in eight tries this season. While those aren’t the type of records that make people turn their heads and take notice, they’re good enough to put them squarely on the NCAA bubble when factored in with a KenPom ranking of 31 and an RPI of 46 that is sure to improve after Wednesday’s win.”We still have our goals that are within reach,” said junior guard Mitchell Wilbekin, one of the team’s elder statesmen who came in on the ground floor with Manning three years ago. “This was just huge for our program.” Wake’s biggest problem this season has been closing games out. It squandered a double digit lead against Clemson in early January by allowing the Tigers to score the game’s final 15 points and twice had Duke on the ropes before falling victim to final possession breakdowns. That changed Wednesday, when after battling back from an early 14-point deficit, the Deacons surged ahead, then answered every challenge Louisville threw at them down the stretch to earn the court-storming victory. The two biggest baskets of the night came after the Cardinals had narrowed a double-digit lead down to three at 75-72 with 3:21 left. Instead of wilting as it had before, Wake rose to the occasion with back to back 3-pointers by Dinos Mitoglou and Wilbekin — the latter a 25-foot bomb with the shot clock running down that all but put the game away. “We’ve been growing all year,” Manning said of his young team, which has only one senior of significance. “We’ve been in this situation before. We just haven’t been able to finish the way we did (against Louisville). “When the regular season is over, we’ll see where we stand and go from there. But we need to continue to ride this wave of momentum that we’re on right now.” The momentum began exactly one week earlier when Manning’s team battled back from a 19-point deficit in the first half to beat Pittsburgh in game that would have all but ended its NCAA hopes had it lost. Wake showed a similar grit against an even better team on Wednesday, an accomplishment its coach chalked up to “fight or flight.” “That’s kind of the situation we’re in,” Manning said. “Each game that we play is the most important game. That’s our mindset.” It’s an attitude that made a definite impression on Pitino. “This team had to win tonight to make the tournament,” the Louisville coach said. “That’s what I kept telling our team. By beating the eighth-ranked team in the country and being 17-12, 8-9, they pretty much got themselves in.” That, of course, is up to the committee not Pitino. But as many NCAA tournament teams as he’s seen over the course of his 32 seasons of coaching, it’s not a bad endorsement to have.
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