Deacons face toughest test of season before starting ACC play

Wake Forest takes a six-game winning streak into its final nonconference tuneup, Saturday at home against Tennessee

Wake Forest guard Keyshawn Woods passes the ball under the basket in a game earlier this season (Jim Dedmon/USA TODAY Sports)

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Wake Forest got off to a shaky start, but the Demon Deacons caught a groove just in time to face a nationally ranked opponent for the first time this season.

No. 21 Tennessee visits for Saturday afternoon’s game at Joel Coliseum in the final nonconference outing for both teams.

“It shows that our team can handle a little bit of adversity and stick together,” Wake Forest guard Bryant Crawford said.

The Demon Deacons (7-4) carry a six-game winning streak into the game. That’s the team’s longest string of success since the 2009-10 season.

“We’ve been punched in the mouth and it’s either fight or flight,” Wake Forest coach Danny Manning said.

Tennessee held an opponent to fewer than 70 points for the first time this month in the 66-61 victory against Furman on Wednesday night. But it took time for the guards to lock in at that end of the court.

“I thought they were trying to take too many chances, trying to go for steals, take the ball away from people and giving up position,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said.

The Volunteers will take on a Wake Forest team that shot above 50 percent in each outing during the winning streak. The Demon Deacons haven’t had such a six-game shooting stretch within the same season in 25 years.

“We’re not a finished product,” said Manning, who as coach of the Demon Deacons is 1-4 in nonleague games against ranked opponents.

Crawford said Wake Forest must excel on defense in order to grab rewards at the other end.

“Being more alert and having more energy on the defensive end allowed us to once again score on the offensive end,” Crawford said, referring to some strong second-half stretches in an 84-80 victory Monday night at Coastal Carolina.

Tennessee (8-2) already faced three other Atlantic Coast Conference teams this season, defeating NC State and Georgia Tech and falling last Sunday to North Carolina.

The Volunteers have had good moments to climb into the national rankings, but they’ve been bothered by inconsistency. They failed to hold a late-game lead in the home loss to North Carolina and then had to rally to overcome Furman.

“We have got to make an adjustment and an adjustment as a team,” said forward Admiral Schofield. “We have to be more consistent, more energized.”

At least the Furman game marked an upgrade in late-game execution for the Volunteers.

“When we had to make some plays defensively, we did,” Barnes said. “We did find a way at the end.”

This marks the third game in seven days for the Volunteers, who have been strong defensively in the first halves this season. They’ve allowed 25.6 first-half points per game and haven’t trailed at the break.

Barnes is from Hickory, which is about an hour’s drive from the site of Saturday’s game.

Tennessee won eight of 10 all-time meetings with Wake Forest, though the teams haven’t faced off in a nontournament setting since 1970.

Wake Forest officials have made efforts to try to draw a big pre-holiday crowd. Faculty and staff will be admitted at no charge, while a promotion at an area mall involved $5 tickets.