CHAPEL HILL — The Wake Forest basketball team has come a long way since starting the year in ominous fashion with consecutive losses to Georgia Southern, Liberty and Drake.
But even after turning things around with six straight victories, the Deacons have shown over their past two games that they still have work to do to finish their season comeback.
Specifically, by doing a better job of closing out games.
Their chances at an upset of No. 21 Tennessee on Dec. 23 came to an end when they went scoreless over the final 4½ minutes, allowing the Volunteers to score the game’s final 13 points.
Saturday, coach Danny Manning’s team repeated the pattern in even more frustrating fashion by getting outscored 8-0 over the final 2½ minutes to see a four-point lead turn into a 73-69 loss at rival North Carolina in its ACC opener.
If one is an incident and two is a pattern, then Manning knows exactly what his team needs to do in order to prevent its recent late-game woes to develop into a trend.
“Make shots,” he said. “Efficiency with our offense.”
Though it sounds like a simplistic explanation, the stat sheets from the Tennessee and UNC games back Manning up.
Against the Vols at Joel Coliseum, Wake missed its final four field goal attempts and the front end of two one-and-ones over its final six possessions.
Against the Tar Heels, Brandon Childress and Bryant Crawford both missed 3-pointers with a chance to put the game away before big man Doral Moore missed a key free throw with the score tied and 34 seconds remaining. The outcome was finally decided when Keyshawn Woods misfired on a 3-pointer in transition as the clock ran down.
The Deacons (7-6, 0-1) made six of their first 10 3-pointers to start the second half before missing their final five attempts.
“We’ve just got to continue to make shots,” Manning said. “We’re executing. We’re getting good looks. We just have to knock them down. And then when you step to the free-throw line and you miss the front end of a couple of one-and-ones, that doesn’t help.”
It also didn’t help that Wake got outrebounded 49-34 by UNC, including a 14-4 margin on the offensive glass. The Deacons didn’t score a single second-chance point and were outscored 33-18 in the paint.
That and those late-game hiccups aside, Manning and his players have to be encouraged by the growth they’ve shown since their near-disastrous start and by the way they battled the defending national champion Tar Heels for the first 37½ minutes at the Smith Center.
They forced UNC into 39 percent shooting, forced 12 turnovers, blocked seven shots and outscored their usually fast-paced opponent 15-5 on fastbreak points.
The Deacons also showed some grit and resilience that could benefit them as the season progresses by refusing to go down quietly after falling behind by nine with just over nine minutes remaining. They battled back to outscore UNC 18-5 to go ahead 69-65 with 2:24 to play.
“They have a great team. They’re one of the best teams in the country” said Woods, a redshirt junior guard who leads Wake in scoring at 16.0 points per game despite coming primarily off the bench. “They run, they rebound, but we played them tough. We played hard. If we can keep this momentum from the way we played in the second half, we can beat elite teams. We just have to play together, play within ourselves, don’t turn the ball over and do the little things and we’ll be fine.”
Little things like rebounding, consistency, defending the lane off the dribble and, of course, making some shots late in games.
“We didn’t do enough things well to get the outcome that we wanted,” Manning said Saturday. “But if we play like this, a second half like we played today for two halves moving forward, we’ll put ourselves in situations to be fairly successful.”