WINSTON-SALEM — The final minute of Wednesday’s game against Syracuse started with an ominously familiar look for the Wake Forest basketball team.
Ahead by four and in position to put an opponent away, the Deacons missed five key free throws, including two by Brandon Childress after the Orange was called for an intentional foul.
But instead of wilting down the stretch as it did in its two previous games — losses to Tennessee and in its ACC opener against North Carolina last Saturday — Wake did what coach Danny Manning said it needed to do and finally made some shots.
Freshman Olivier Sarr made his final five attempts over the final 23.4 seconds and the Deacons got just enough stops when they needed them to hold on for a 73-67 victory at Joel Coliseum.
“Every game in ACC play, every game moving forward is going to be close,” said senior guard Mitchell Wilbekin, who finished with 10 points and career-high eight assists. “Everyone in this league is competitive with each other, so I think our guys did a good job of sticking together. It wasn’t always pretty, but we got the win and we won’t apologize for that.”
Wake (8-6) didn’t go without its lulls in its conference home opener. It’s just that time they came with enough time left to recover from them.
The first came late in the opening half, when Syracuse took advantage of a six-minute Deacon drought to score 12 unanswered points that turned an eight-point deficit into a 29-25 lead. Wilbekin ended that run with a key four-point play with 26 seconds remaining that helped his team regain its confidence headed into the break.
Wake’s offense screeched to a halt again midway through the second half during a four-minute stretch in which it could only muster a pair of Terrence Thompson free throws.
But again, they were able to recover, this time on the strength of three 3-pointers by Bryant Crawford and one each from Wilbekin and Chaundee Brown.
Crawford led the Deacons with 19 points while Thompson added 13, mostly on jumpers from the soft spot in the middle of Syracuse’s trademark matchup zone defense.
“I thought we started the game (well), but then we got stagnant,” Manning said. “Their zone will do that to you. But at the end of the day, for us to have 20 assists on 25 field goals, I think we did a good job of moving the basketball.”
Wake’s 80 percent assist-to-field goal rate was its second-highest since 1997-98, topped only by the 81 percent (22 assists on 27 baskets) it posted against Boston College last season. The Deacons’ effort was all the more impressive considering that leading scorer Keyshawn Woods played only three minutes, scoring five points, after suffering what is believe to be a knee injury.
“I thought it was a really good game by all the guards that played,” Manning said.
As good as Crawford, Wilbekin and Brandon Childress were, the biggest difference in the game might have been the big guys up front.
Between them, centers Doral Moore and Sarr, along with power forward Thompson, combined for 20 rebounds as the Deacons outrebounded the Orange 38-29. It was the first time in 15 games this season that Syracuse (12-3, 1-1) has been outrebounded, and it came on the heels of a game at UNC in which Manning was critical of his team’s performance on the boards.
Wake scored 11 second-chance points Wednesday. That’s 11 more than it had against the Tar Heels four days earlier.
“The whole week, coach has been emphasizing rebounding in practice,” Thompson said. “That carried over into the game today. Every time the ball went up for a shot three, four and five crashed the glass. The guards also helped us on the boards. That was a strong point for us. … We just too pride in rebounds tonight.”
They also showed a little resilience by hanging tough despite a few rough spots down the stretch while learning from their mistakes of the previous two losses.
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, for one, was impressed with what he saw from the deeper Deacons, who outscored Syracuse’s bench 20-0 and used its depth to wear the Orange down as the game went on.
“The Carolina game the other day they had a four-point lead late and they could have easily won the game,” Boeheim said. “I think they started slow this year, but I think they’ve got a good team. They’ve got really good balance. They’ve got guys that can shoot, they’ve got big guys that rebounded. I thought they played well tonight.