WINSTON-SALEM — For 19½ minutes on Wednesday, Wake Forest looked every bit the part of an up-and-coming basketball team ready to challenge the ACC’s best.
Then in the blink of an eye, the Deacons suddenly morphed into a young team learning for the first time what it’s like to play on a big stage.
Coach Steve Forbes’ team got knocked back by a pair of Duke 3-pointers that turned a tie game into a six-point deficit in the final 18 seconds of the half. By the time Wake recovered, the Blue Devils had broken the game open and were well on their way to a 76-64 victory before a near-capacity crowd of 14,213 at Joel Coliseum.
“Duke did an unbelievable job of imposing their will on us at the end of the half and the beginning of the second half,” Forbes said. “They won the game in the middle eight (minutes).
“We had a chance to go ahead at halftime, should have had the lead, and they go on an 8-0 run to finish the half. Some of it was our mistakes, some of it was they made some great plays. Then they went 4 for 4 to start the second half and we played behind the rest of the time.”
Forbes’ assessment of the game was correct, even if his math was a little off. It was actually only about a six-minute stretch surrounding the break that did his Deacons in.
The decisive swing began with Wake holding a 29-27 lead on a Dallas Walton dunk with just under a minute remaining in the half.
Duke’s Wendell Moore Jr. answered that with a basket off a baseline drive to tie. A Deacon turnover followed by a 3-pointer by Trevor Keels put the Blue Devils ahead.
And things only got worse from there.
An offensive foul on Isaiah Mucius gave the ball back to Duke, which flew into the locker room with momentum behind it when AJ Griffin hit a trey from deep in the far corner at the buzzer.
“That 3 they hit at the end, it was a big shot for them,” said Wake’s Jake LaRavia, who got into early foul trouble and scored all 14 of his points over the final 20 minutes. “It was a tough shot and it kind of carried over to start the second. That’s never good for us to give that up and it’s not like us, either.”
As poorly as the first half ended for the Deacons (13-4, 3-3 ACC), the start of the second half was even worse.
With star freshman Paolo Banchero dominating on one end of the court and shot blocker Mark Williams defending the rim on the other, the Blue Devils (13-2, 2-1) ended any hope of a Wake comeback by scoring 14 of the period’s first 15 points.
When Banchero hit a 3-pointer at the 15:16 to finish off a 25-3 run dating back to the final minute of the first half, the Duke lead had ballooned to 20 points at 55-35.
Banchero finished with 24 points while Griffin had 22.
To their credit, the Deacons outscored the Blue Devils — who were playing without Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski, back home with what was described as “a non-COVID related virus” — by eight points the rest of the way.
But by then the damage had been done.
“All the credit goes to Duke,” Forbes said. “They came in here with a great crowd, a great energy in the building and they did what they had to do to get a road win.”
While things didn’t go according to plan for his team, including a 2-for-16 performance from 3-point range and 15 turnovers that led to 22 Blue Devils points, Forbes was able to take at least some positives from Wake’s biggest test to date.
One was that despite a sound defensive scheme that made things difficult on Deacons star Alondes Williams, forcing him into seven turnovers, the Oklahoma transfer still found a way to score 25 points to go along with seven rebounds and four assists.
Wake also outrebounded Duke 36-29, with eight of those boards coming from freshman guard Cameron Hildreth in a gritty 23 minutes off the bench.
Forbes is also hoping that his still growing young team learned a valuable lesson — both in the way it battled the Blue Devils before and after its disastrous mid-game stretch and from the way it let the game slip away in such a quick, dramatic fashion.
“You still have to play the way you’re taught, like we’ve been playing all year long, and I thought Duke had a lot to do with speeding us up,” Forbes said. “I told them before the game, we don’t have to play perfect. We’ve just got to play the way we play.
“I told them don’t hit home runs, hit singles. Just make the easy play. The more we’re in this environment, the better we’ll play. But I thought this is what Wake Forest basketball is about — a full building playing against big-time competition like Duke.”