WINSTON-SALEM — Wake Forest’s two-point lead on NC State with 15:44 remaining Wednesday might have seemed precarious, especially given the way both teams were playing at the time.
Recent history, however, suggested otherwise.
A little less than a month earlier, on Feb. 9 at PNC Arena, the Deacons and Wolfpack were locked in a similar struggle. With virtually an identical score.
That night, Wake turned up the heat, finished strong and pulled away for an 18-point victory. This time the statement was even more emphatic.
Needing a win to keep their NCAA Tournament resume from taking a dangerous hit, the Deacons came through in a big way, shooting 64.9% from the floor in the second half and surging to a 101-76 Senior Night win in their regular season finale.
The victory completed Wake’s ledger at 23-8 record (13-7 ACC) with a 10-game improvement that is one season record for an ACC team.
“To win 23 regular season games after going through the pandemic, recruiting this entire team by Zoom, having nine new players, it’s special,” Deacons coach Steve Forbes said. “It’s special to be here at this moment and they deserve to relish in it for a couple of days. Then we’re going to refocus and go win the ACC Tournament.”
The coach and his players were certainly in a celebratory mood as Wake’s seniors came out of the game to emotional hugs with just under two minutes remaining.
But things weren’t always that jovial.
Forbes figuratively peeled a little paint off the locker room walls with a salty halftime admonition for a team he felt had been outplayed — and worse, outhustled — by a Wolfpack team that sits dead last in the ACC standings.
The Deacons committed six turnovers and allowed State to make seven 3-pointers during a first half that ended with them clinging to just a 41-40 lead.
“That’s probably as mad as I’ve been at halftime this year just because of the fact that I thought we were getting beat to the ball — 50-50 balls, loose balls,” Forbes said. “We had so much riding on it and it really upset me. To give them credit, we came out and just went at it.”
The surge didn’t happen right away, though. State (11-19, 4-15) continued to hang with the Deacons for the first four minutes, tying the score at 48 on a 3-pointer by Terquavion Smith.
From that point on, it was all Wake. The Deacons put up the next 11 points to finally gain some separation and went on to outscore the Wolfpack 53-28 over the final 15:44.
It was an all-too-familiar story for coach Kevin Keatts’ team, which has consistently shown an ability to play on even terms with the ACC’s top teams for stretches but has just as consistently hurt its chances of winning by suffering through lengthy lapses on both ends of the court.
“Everything changed,” said Wolfpack guard Casey Morsell. “We weren’t as active on the defensive end, we weren’t talking as much. On offense, we went back to kind of what made us lose all year — selfish basketball. No passes, no movement. It was easy for them to guard.”
Morsell, with 10 points, was one of three State players to score in double figures. Smith led the way with 22 points, including five 3-pointers, while Jericole Hellems finished with 18.
Leading scorer Derion Seabron, however, was held to just five points on 2-of-8 shooting. But that was the least of the Wolfpack’s woes.
With its only two big men in foul trouble early in the second half, State could do little to stop the Deacons’ from getting to the rim and scoring there. Big man Dallas Walton was particularly effective, scoring 16 of his 20 points and grabbing 10 of his 12 rebounds over the final 20 minutes while helping to foul both Ebenezer Dowuona and Jaylon Gibson out of the game.
“It’s cool, because I know my coaching staff and my teammates are putting trust in me to deliver in those situations,” Walton, a transfer from Colorado, said. “They’re drawing up plays for me to go attack their bigs. It means a lot that I’m scoring the ball, but that I’m putting their bigs in foul trouble like that.”
Point guard Daivien Williamson led Wake with 28 points while going 11 of 14 from the floor, while Alondes Williams produced a double-double with 17 points and 11 assists to go along with six rebounds.
He punctuated his candidacy for ACC Player of the Year with a thunderous tomahawk dunk midway through Wake’s second-half blitz.
“For that young man to come into this league and lead it in scoring and assists, and be the only person every to do it, that’s unbelievable,” said Forbes of Williams, who was serenaded by chants of MVP by his home crowd during the late stages of the game. “That’s storybook. … He means everything. I think when we look back at this someday, he’ll be one of the special players that played here.”