RALEIGH — The college basketball season has reached the point in which teams have firmly established their respective identities and can be counted on to play either up or down to certain expectations.
Wake Forest and NC State are no exceptions.
The surging Deacons have become a team that’s proven it knows how to win, while the struggling Wolfpack almost always find themselves in the position of playing well enough to lose.
Those tendencies held true on Wednesday.
Wake, playing as a ranked team for the first time in a dozen years, scored the game’s final 16 points to finally break free from a plucky State squad and earn its 20th win of the season with a 69-51 victory at PNC Arena.
It was the seventh win in the last eight games for coach Steve Forbes’ Deacons, who are ranked 25th in the current coaches poll, while the Wolfpack fell deeper toward the ACC cellar with its second five-game losing streak of the season.
“I thought it was a really good road win for us,” Forbes said. “I’m proud of my team to get to 20 wins, but we still have a lot of games left.
“Respect is a hard thing to get back once you lose it, and I think we’re starting to gain the respect that Wake Forest once had in this league and where we belong. We’re surely not satisfied. In my opinion, 20 wins is a good season, 25 is great and 30 is special. So we just keep playing.”
That’s a philosophy that helped pull Wake through on Wednesday.
Despite shooting better than 50% from the floor in both halves, the Deacons (20-5, 10-4 ACC) had trouble pulling away from their injury-depleted opponent, who succeeded in taking them out of their rhythm by switching between a zone and man-to-man defense.
State (10-15, 3-11) trailed by three at halftime and was still within two at 53-51 with 5:19 to go after Dereon Seabron finished off a stretch in which he accounted for 13 of his team’s 15 points over a five-minute period.
But as the Wolfpack has done so often this season, it wasn’t able to close the deal. And Wake, true to its form, did.
The decisive finishing kick began with a 3-pointer by Daivien Williamson from the right corner, followed by a fast break drive by the senior point guard. Jake LaRavia followed with a free throw before Alondes Williams, Khadim Sy and Isaiah Mucius all got into the scoring act.
While Wake was making seven of its final eight field goal attempts, the combination of the Deacons’ defense and State’s desperation led to the Wolfpack going 0 for 3 with five turnovers on its final eight possessions on the other end of the court.
“They played a lot of zone and kept us off balance a little bit, but when it was game time, I thought we did a great job,” Forbes said.
“We started getting stops and once we started getting stops, getting out in transition and playing Wake Forest basketball, that’s when things turned around for us,” added Williamson, who with 11 points was one of four Deacons to score in double figures.
Williams led the way with 17 points to go along with nine rebounds and six assists, while Mucius and Sy finished with 13 points.
If the final six minutes were “Wake Forest basketball,” as Williamson suggested, then they were also typical of NC State basketball during this forgettable 2021-22 season.
“When we were coming down and not getting anything offensively, I think people were getting frustrated on the defensive end,” said Seabron, who scored 16 of his game-high 22 points in the second half. “That’s why we gave up those easy layups or those wide-open 3s.”
While the 16-0 closing run was the difference in the game, Wolfpack coach Kevin Keatts said that his team was already well on the way to an all-too-familiar result because of another recurring trait.
Of State’s three top scorers, only Seabron was successful at putting the ball in the basket. Freshman guard Terquavion Smith, who averages 15.8 points per game, managed only eight on 3-of-16 shooting (2 of 10 3-pointers) and was shut out in the second half. Senior wing Jericole Hellems went 3 of 12 (1 of 7 on 3s) for nine points, five below his season average.
“It’s no secret that if those three guys are not (all) having a good night, it’s going to be a long night for us,” Keatts said. “We did a good job because I think the zone kept them off balance and we didn’t let the score get away from us.
“Once they got to scoring, we didn’t have enough because we didn’t play well enough to be able to score to match those guys. We did some good stuff, but our offense wasn’t clicking enough to be able to win a game.”