RALEIGH — Wake Forest rolled out to a stunning 22-point lead and held on for an upset of then 17th-ranked NC State the first time the in-state rivals met on the basketball court this season back on Jan. 16.
Markell Johnson was conspicuously missing from the Wolfpack’s lineup that afternoon. Chances are, his presence might have made a difference.
It did in Sunday’s rematch.
Now back to full strength following a back injury that sidelined him for three games, or at least close to it, the junior guard hit a career-high six 3-pointers on his way to 25 points.
It was an effort that helped propel the Wolfpack to a 94-74 victory at PNC Arena — the fourth win in the last five games as coach Kevin Keatts and his team begin to gain momentum for the rapidly approaching postseason.
“Give Wake Forest credit for their win (in Winston-Salem). I’m not going to take away from it because Markell wasn’t there,” Keatts said, adding that Johnson was “locked in” on Sunday. “But tonight, I thought Markell was special. He was obviously the difference in the game.”
It didn’t take long for him to start making an impact on a night in which State honored 2014 ACC Player of the Year T.J. Warren.
He grabbed a rebound, made a basket and handed out an assist during a 9-0 run to open the game and set a decidedly different tone from lackluster effort that marred that earlier meeting.
Then, after the Wolfpack hit a lull that allowed the Deacons to get as close as 18-17 midway through the half, Johnson began putting on a show from beyond the 3-point arc.
He made 5 of his 6 attempts from beyond the arc while the rest of his team combined to go just 1 of 9.
“In the first half when we were struggling to score, he raised up and made a bunch of shots,” Keatts said.
Considering the motivation Johnson brought with him into the game, it should be a surprise that he was the one that carried the Wolfpack (20-8, 8-7 ACC) when it needed it most.
“I didn’t play the first game, so I already had a chip on my shoulder,” said Johnson, who also had six rebounds and three assists in his best game since he was hurt. “I wanted to step up to the challenge. Once I hit the first one, my teammates just encouraged me to keep shooting. So that’s what I did.”
Johnson made only one second half 3-pointer, but it sparked a 14-3 run early in the period that all but put the listless Deacons away.
All eight of the other Wolfpack players that dressed for the game made significant contributions to the effort, with freshman forward Jericole Hellems hitting for 14 points off the bench. Torin Dorn added a double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds while Devon Daniels continued his strong recent play with 10 points.
Even seldom-used point guard Blake Harris chipped in with five points, five rebounds, three assists and a solid defensive effort in 17 minutes — his most since playing 18 minutes in a win against USC Upstate on Dec. 22.
“I feel like we all put in the hours and we’re competing in practice, so it just follows to the game,” Hellems said. “Everybody focuses on trying to give good minutes when they’re in the game and not as much on points. That’s what coach preaches to us and it will all pan out.”
Things haven’t panned out quite as well for Wake. Despite coming into the game off a rare win — at Notre Dame on Tuesday — the Deacons (10-16, 3-11) fell right back into their rut by shooting pooly (going just 37.9 percent from the floor), failing to get back defensively in transition (allowing 24 fastbreak points) and getting beaten on the boards (by a 47-37 margin).
It didn’t help that coach Danny Manning’s team was without sophomore center Olivier Sarr, who injured a foot in practice after scoring 14 points in the win against the Irish.
Wake’s chances were further damaged when its other reliable inside threat, freshman Jaylen Hoard, got into foul trouble. Hoard still led his team with 17 points, but he was limited to just 27 minutes before fouling out.
“He just has to do a better job of understanding the situation, playing defense with his head and his feet, and putting his body in the right spot,” Manning said of Hoard. “Honestly, we missed Oliveri’s presence. He makes guys change shots at the rim with his height and length. Then offensively we missed him just catching the ball and being able to face up and get off a shot of some sort.”
While the Deacons are heading nowhere fast, State appears to be getting hot at the right time as it prepares to take a week off before facing a finishing stretch that includes two of its final three regular season games on the road.
“It’s always good to have confidence going into the postseason,” Hellems said. “I think it’s important for us to keep building and getting better every day so we can have those good games in the postseason, too.”