By Jeff White
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — The box score partly explains why the Wake Forest men’s basketball team is no longer winless in ACC play. It shows that the Demon Deacons were 19 of 21 from the foul line and 9 of 19 from 3-point range Saturday, shot 56 percent from the floor in the second half, and turned 11 Virginia turnovers into 20 points.
The box score does not, however, include the most telling statistic of all: Wake scored on 17 of its final 20 possessions.
Seventeen of 20. And each of those possessions produced at least two points. Four times Wake came away with three points.
Small wonder, then, that the Demon Deacons rallied from 10 points down in the second half to beat UVa 76-71 before a crowd of 11,782 at Lawrence Joel Coliseum.
“We had ’em,” Virginia sophomore point guard Jontel Evans said. “We just let it slip away.”
When second-year coach Tony Bennett talks about “getting a gap,” he means three defensive stops in a row. Against Wake (1-5, 8-13), which came in ranked 10th among ACC teams in field-goal percentage, the Cavaliers got two gaps early in the second half.
They got only one more the rest of the game. And that made the loss more excruciating for a team that wants to be known for its stifling defense.
“Definitely,” freshman swingman Joe Harris said. “Coach can live with us missing shots, but those things that he preaches and we take a lot of pride in, those are things you can’t let up in. He takes so much pride in the defensive end, and we didn’t focus in like we should have. We kind of just let up. It’s happened a few times this season where we have a lead, and it all starts at the defensive end, and us letting up a little bit and letting them crawl back into it. Momentum shifts, and [the opposing team’s] confidence builds from there.”
The loss was the fifth in six games for the Wahoos (2-5, 11-10). It also continued a troubling trend for UVa in this series. The ‘Hoos have lost six straight to the Deacons overall and nine in a row at Joel Coliseum.
In three of the Cavaliers’ recent losses — to North Carolina, Duke and, now, Wake — they blew sizeable second-half leads.
“We get up, we play stretches of quality basketball,” Bennett said, but the “ability to hang tough and not give up a lead is not there.
“I wish I had an answer. We try to simplify things certainly late in the half, so guys don’t have to think as much. Defensively we’re pretty simple. It kind of comes down to a battle of wills late in the game, and we have some costly breakdowns.”
In its first game since missing 7 of 13 free throws in a one-sided loss to Maryland, Virginia was only 7 for 14 from the line Saturday. But offense was not the Cavaliers’ problem against Wake. The ‘Hoos shot 50 percent from the floor and had five players who scored in double figures: junior center Assane Sene (15 points), Harris (14), senior guard Mustapha Farrakhan (13), junior guard Sammy Zeglinski (11) and Evans (10).
That marked only the second time under Bennett that the Cavaliers scored at least 70 points and lost. It was the first time this season that Virginia shot at least 50 percent from the field and lost.
“There were some good things that happened offensively, there’s no question about that,” Bennett said. “We have to try to capitalize on that. It’s like golf. When your driver’s on, your putting’s off. We need the short game and the long game to come together. We can’t put that performance out there offensively and then falter defensively. That’s what stings. They’ve both got to be there, and that’s what good teams — teams that are becoming good and improving — do.”
At least one Cavalier, the 7-0, 239-pound Sene, seems to be improving with every game. Against Maryland, he pulled down a career-high 15 rebounds and helped silence all-ACC candidate Jordan Williams. Against Wake, Sene had a game-high 13 boards and scored a career-best 15 points.
“Could have been 17 or 19,” Bennett said, noting that Sene was only 3 for 8 from the line.
Still, Bennett gave Sene high marks overall.
“I thought our players did a nice job of getting it to him, and I thought he caught the ball first and then did the next thing, instead of trying to do the next thing first before catching it,” Bennett said.
Wake junior center Ty Walker, who came in having scored a total of 8 career points in ACC games, had 11 against UVa.
“I’ll take a look at the film and see defensively if [Sene] was doing the right things,” Bennett said. “But I’m pleased with Assane, because he’s one of the most unselfish guys that I’ve been around. He’s willing to screen and do whatever he can and help defensively. And to see him make some strides and improve in the last few games, that’s a highlight, and I’m glad that he’s making those strides.”
Sene, who had never scored more than 11 points in a college game before Saturday, dunked three times against Wake and looked as assertive and confident as he ever has with the ball.
“I was focused on what I was doing,” Sene said. “I was just working harder and just taking my time. Made sure that I finished every [opportunity] that I had.”
Evans said: “Assane’s come a long way. He goes into practice with a positive attitude and works hard every day and tries to get better, and it’s showing.”
Wake’s biggest lead in the first half was eight points. But moments after J.T. Terrell’s 3-pointer made it 18-10, Harris answered with a trey, and Farrakhan followed with a three-point play.
UVa led 34-32 at the break despite an uneven defensive effort. Wake was only 3 for 12 on shots inside the 3-point arc in the first half, but 7 for 13 on 3-pointers.
At halftime, Bennett challenged his players to raise their defensive intensity, and they responded well initially. Wake scored only six points in the first seven minutes of the second half, and a Zeglinski trey gave Virginia a 48-38 lead with 12:55 to play.
From that point, though, the Cavaliers unraveled on defense. The Deacons scored inside, outside, in transition and from the line in a rally that brought the crowd to its feet several times. Six Wake players finished in double figures, including freshman forward Travis McKie (12 points, 10 points, 3 blocks, 2 steals), a one-time UVa recruiting target from Richmond’s John Marshall High School.
The Deacons took their first lead of the second half on a Walker basket with 5:44 remaining. They went ahead for good at the 2:42 mark on a 3-pointer by guard Gary Clark, who was left open on the left wing.
“There were a lot of opportunities, I thought, where we could have just taken the game with a knockout punch,” Evans said, “but we didn’t deliver. Mental mistakes at both end of the court cost us.”
Bennett said: “Some defensive breakdowns hurt us more than maybe an offensive scoring drought. Guys made some good plays, but there were the breakdowns. And again as the game wears on, not that there was gambling, you need to become safer and sounder on that defensive end. It’s a battle of wills at that point of the game, who’s going to outlast, who’s going to be sounder and tougher. [Wake] got momentum. Our guys didn’t wilt, but they didn’t do enough to be victorious, especially on the road.”
The Cavaliers have more time to prepare for their next opponent, Clemson, than they did for Wake. The game at Joel Coliseum tipped off about 43 hours after the end of UVa’s loss to Maryland at John Paul Jones Arena.
The ‘Hoos host the Tigers (4-3, 15-6) at 9 p.m. Wednesday at JPJ. The Tigers whipped Florida State on Saturday at Littlejohn Coliseum.
“It’s definitely tough for us to put stuff behind us,” UVa freshman KT Harrell said Saturday, “because we have lost a couple games we’ve been in and have had a great opportunity of winning most of those games that we’ve lost. It’s definitely tough to have a short-term memory and put those games behind you, but you have to. You have to in order to be where you want to be.”