WINSTON-SALEM — Considering how few ACC victories Wake Forest has had the past two-plus seasons, the Deacons' 55-52 victory over Virginia Wednesday night in Joel Coliseum may not have been monumental but it had a big feel to it.
The win was just the sixth conference victory since coach Jeff Bzdelik took over the program in 2010 and, for one January evening anyway, suggested the Deacons are edging back toward ACC relevance.
It didn't come easily for the Deacons, not that anything has the past three seasons. They won despite not scoring a field goal in the final 10 minutes, 22 seconds and they saw a seven-point lead in the final minute melt to one point with six seconds remaining.
"This is a great, great win for our young ball club," Bzdelik said. "We were very resilient, we really were. We defended our tails off from wire to wire."
Leading by seven entering the final minute, the Deacons were barely able to hold on. The Cavaliers, who had not made a 3-point in the first 39 minutes, hit three straight to slice the Wake Forest (8-6, 1-1) lead to one.
That's when C.J. Harris, who led the Deacons with 16 points, made a pair of free throws to stretch the Wake Forest lead back to three. Virginia wasn't able to get off a potentially tying 3-pointer before the buzzer sounded.
"We were outplayed for the majority of that game," Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. "We were out of sync. We played rushed and it affected us."
Four days after a home court victory against North Carolina, Virginia (11-4, 1-1) was a different team against the Deacons, losing for the 10th straight time in Joel Coliseum. The Deacons had a lot to do with that.
They spread the court at the offensive end, creating space in Virginia's defense and built a seven-point halftime lead while shooting 52 percent before the break. That gave the Deacons just enough working space to allow them to win despite shooting 26 percent in the second half.
The Cavaliers play basketball with a manual transmission and force their opponents into doing the same thing. Possessions bump. They grind. They bump some more.
It works for Virginia, or at least it usually does.
Little worked well for the Cavaliers Wednesday night however as Wake Forest dictated the action, herky jerky as it may have been. In a sense, the Deacons beat Virginia at its own game.
"This group of players is growing together and that's how you play defense, that's how you manufacture offense," Bzdelik said. "We are improving."
While pleased with his team's late comeback, Bennett said it couldn't cover up how his team played overall.
"In the meat of the game, the guts of the game, there wasn't enough there," Bennett said.
Wake Forest wasted no time building on its seven-point halftime lead, quickly extending its advantage to 38-26.
At one point early in the second half, Virginia guard Jontel Evans was bringing the ball up court, saw a teammate and, as he fired a seemingly harmless pass ahead, his open teammate turned the other way. The ball flew out of bounds just a few feet from Cavaliers coach Tony Bennett, who could only hang his head and rub a hand across his face.
Leading by 14 points midway through the second half, the Deacons suddenly hit rough air. Virginia scored seven straight points -- an offensive flurry -- and carved the Wake Forest lead to 46-39 with 6:58 remaining.
Wake Forest built a 29-22 halftime lead, using their own defensive intensity to frustrate the Cavaliers while gradually opening a lead. The Deacons forced Virginia into 11 first-half turnovers, many of them when the Cavaliers tried to push the ball inside.
Eight Deacons scored in the first half, led by McKie's seven points before the break. It was McKie who factored into the run that pushed the Deacons to their first-half advantage. The junior forward scored seven straight points, including a 3-pointer, as the Deacons went ahead 27-20 late in the first half.
Despite dominating the boards in the first half, including seven offensive rebounds, Virginia couldn't find an offensive rhythm. It was left to freshman Mike Tobey to keep the Cavaliers close, scoring 10 points before the break.