WINSTON-SALEM — Wake Forest’s Joel Coliseum isn’t the most intimidating place in the ACC for visiting teams to play.
Far from it.
In fact, there were almost as many NC State fans in attendance there Tuesday night as those rooting for the home Deacons. But for whatever the reason, there’s something about the otherwise unassuming arena that seems to bring out the worst in the Wolfpack.
This time, State did itself in by digging a 22-point hole early in the second half. Although it roared from behind to tie the game with just under eight minutes remaining, coach Kevin Keatts’ team wasn’t able to complete the comeback.
Wake got a late lift from graduate transfer Torry Johnson and held on to win 71-67 for its first ACC victory of the year and its sixth triumph in the Wolfpack’s last seven trips to Winston-Salem.
“This is a tough place to play,” said senior Torin Dorn, State’s most experienced player. “Wake looks at us as a rival, so they play extremely hard when they play us. There are certain things we have to do in order to win games like this on the road.”
The 17th-ranked Wolfpack, which will almost certainly fall out of the rankings next week, didn’t do any of those things during a first half that saw them go 1 for 14 from 3-point range, send the Deacons to the line 13 times and play little to no defense against a team that has already lost to Gardner-Webb and Houston Baptist this season.
While the absence of starting point guard Markell Johnson may have accounted for some of State’s problems, it’s just as likely that the Wolfpack took Wake lightly — just as its football team did in an upset loss to the Deacons in November.
The more State struggled, the more confidence Wake gained. It’s a snowball that carried over into the second half, when the Deacons built on a 10-3 run to close the first with an opening 9-2 spurt that increased their rapidly increasing lead to 51-29 with 17:31 remaining.
“That’s probably the best we’ve played,” said Wake freshman Jaylen Hoard, who led his team with 16 points, 10 rebounds and three blocked shots. “Everybody was touching the ball, the ball was moving, everyone was engaged and happy, and we were playing great defense.”
And then just like that, everything changed.
Eric Lockett scored on a rebound and finished off the 3-point play, Braxton Beverly finally hit a 3-pointer and C.J. Brice began attacking the basket, and for the next 10 minutes State (14-3, 2-2) was finally off and running.
Turning up the pressure on defense and getting back into character by increasing the tempo to create easy baskets, the Wolfpack scored 15 straight points in one stretch to cap a 29-5 run that got it back even.
“We were able to force some turnovers and share the ball and score in the second half,” said Dorn, who led State with 18 points. “We made some of the shots we didn’t make in the first half.”
But just as quickly as the Wolfpack shot its way back into the game, it shot its way right back out of it. State missed eight straight field goal attempts after Devon Daniels’ driving one-hander that tied the game at 58 with 7:45 remaining, Three of those misses came with a chance to take the lead. In all, State missed 13 of its final 16 shots.
“If you look at that 10-minute stretch where we played extremely well to get back in the game, we shared the basketball,” Keatts said. “Everybody got involved. We had some guys drive to the hole and we fed off each other. Once we tied it up, I thought a couple of guys played hero basketball.”
The Deacons (8-8, 1-3) were only too happy to take advantage. Brandon Childress put Wake back ahead with a pull-up jumper in the lane, then Hoard followed with a basket and two free throws to reopen a lead.
Johnson, who averages just 5.4 points per game, then made sure his team held onto the advantage by scoring four of his 11 points in the final 1:18 — including the clinching free throws with 13.3 seconds left.
It was clear from the emotional postgame celebration among the victory-starved Deacons once the final buzzer sounded that State’s annual visit to Joel Coliseum couldn’t have come at a better time.
“It’s always rewarding when win, especially in our league,” coach Danny Manning said. “All wins are things that you value and appreciate. For us, being 0-3 at the time, this is a big win. For us, there are a lot of things we can get better from from this game, but there are a lot of things we can pull from to create some more energy and confidence as we move forward.”