WINSTON-SALEM — The Wake Forest basketball team probably wasn’t playing for its NCAA Tournament life on Saturday.
But you never would have known it the way the Deacons came out against Louisville.
Coach Steve Forbes’ team scored 17 straight points after surrendering the first basket of the game and never looked back on the way to an emphatic 99-77 win at Joel Coliseum.
Jake LaRavia scored 23 points and Dallas Walton matched his career high with 22 to help Wake bounce back from Wednesday’s loss at Clemson and earn a victory that probably didn’t do much to enhance its resume for the rapidly approaching postseason but certainly didn’t hurt it, either.
“It’s been a little while since we’ve been able to put two halves together, so we knew it was either now or never that we really catch our stride,” said Walton, a 7-foot transfer who matched the scoring total he posted last season against Washington while still playing for Colorado.
“Coach Forbes had us inspired tonight, just as he does every night for us. It was nice to get the start that we did and be able to maintain it throughout the game.”
The Deacons (22-8, 12-7 ACC) came out firing from jump, making nine of their first 11 field goal attempts — and scoring on offensive rebounds on the two they missed over the first seven minutes.
It was a start Forbes described as “playing with a great edge” rather than urgency.
Whatever it’s called, Wake’s early performance was an impressive display of team basketball on both ends of the court.
After Jae’Lyn Withers opened the scoring for Louisville (12-16, 6-12) on his team’s opening possession, the Deacons swarmed the Cardinals into six consecutive scoreless possessions.
Offensively, they got contributions from seven different players on the way to a 22-5 head start, including back-to-back 3-pointers by Isaiah Mucius that might just have been the most significant baskets of the game.
They were important because they showed that the senior forward was back to full strength after missing the Clemson game with an illness.
Mucius is Wake’s best defender and a reliable perimeter threat. He finished the game with 12 points, four rebounds, a steal and a blocked shot in a performance that drew praise from his coach.
“He got us off to a great start,” Forbes said. “He’s become one of the better defenders in our league. He’s toughened up, he rebounds the ball, he’s got tremendous spirit, he’s a great communicator, he’s a leader, So we need that. We missed that Wednesday night.”
If Mucius was the one that kick-started the rout, LaRavia and Walton were the two that put it into full gear.
LaRavia, a versatile 6-foot-8 transfer from Indiana State, aggressively attacked the basket against Louisville’s zone defense. Although he only made five field goals, he got to the free-throw line 14 times, making 13.
Walton, meanwhile, helped make up for the absence of fellow big man Khadim Sy — who missed his second straight game with a foot injury — by playing his best game as a Deacon.
Daivien Williamson (15 points) and Alondes Williams (11) also scored in double figures, while freshman Cameron Hildreth came off the bench to score eight in an expanded role.
Wake shot 58.2% from the floor as a team and made 13 of its 27 3-point attempts. It built the lead to as many as 20 at 38-18 on a pair of LaRavia free throws with 9:06 left in the half.
But the fast start may have been too good for its own good. A sudden cold snap and an 11-0 Cardinals run cut the deficit to just eight by halftime. Sydney Curry led Louisville with 28 points.
“I was pretty animated at halftime,” Forbes said. “It wasn’t just me, the assistant coaches were really animated as well, and rightfully so.”
Louisville got as close as six after El Ellis hit a pair of free throws to open the second half before the Deacons finally got things going again. With the help of a technical foul on the Louisville bench, they ran off 11 of the next 12 points to break the game open again.
For good, this time.
About the only suspense that was left in the second half was whether walk-on Miles Lester would score. He did, hitting a 3-pointer for his team’s final points before being mobbed by his teammates as they left the floor.
“We got off to a great start and then we got off to a great start in the second half,” Forbes said. “Those are important times in every game and we really did well during that time.”
The Deacons finish their regular season at home on Wednesday against NC State before heading to Brooklyn for the ACC Tournament.