WINSTON-SALEM — In Monday’s practice, the night before Wake Forest’s 86-84 upset win against N.C. State, coach Jeff Bzdelik put his team in a situation he hoped they’d be in the following night.
Wake Forest 75, opponent 70. Two minutes remain in the game.
The Deacons, like most teams, practice time-and-score scenarios, but it’s usually leading or trailing by a point or two.
“I said, ‘We’re going to learn how to play with the lead, guys. Because we’re going to have one,’” Bzdelik said.
The next night, with 2 minutes, 17 seconds left in regulation, Wake Forest led the No. 18 Wolfpack 83-78. It was just like they had practiced.
“This time in practice we were up and he wanted to see how we’d handle it,” junior forward Travis McKie said. “Sometimes we get the lead in games and we give it up toward the end of the game. He kept pushing the ante to have us play with a sense of urgency and not just coast.”
Having suffered close losses earlier in the season, the Deacons (10-8, 3-3 ACC) held onto their lead and secured their first victory against a ranked opponent in the two-plus seasons under Bzdelik, who’s attempting to turn around a program that since being ranked No. 1 nationally in 2009 has had consecutive last-place finishes in the ACC.
The win was the most tangible result of what Bzdelik has tried to implement at the school since taking over Dino Gaudio’s program in 2010. From embarrassing nonconference losses to dealing with paltry attendance in the once-rocking Lawrence Joel Coliseum, the coach and his players finally reaped their reward Tuesday.
“You talk about the human condition, and our players have worked and worked, but at some point you need that validation and pat on the back and say, ‘Hey OK, OK. All that hard work paid off,’ ” said Bzdelik, whose Deacons visit Georgia Tech on Saturday.
“Yes the last two years have been tough. And we still have challenges ahead of us, no question about it. But it’s taking the right form and the foundation is really rock solid.”
A less-than-ideal beginning
When McKie would visit Wake Forest during his senior year of high school, Joel Coliseum would be packed with fans and Tie Dye Nation students cheering for the No. 1 team in the country.
He saw none of that his freshman year.
Wake Forest lost its season opener to Stetson at home. Four games after, the Deacons lost to Winthrop, again at home. A month later, a two-point loss—at home—to Presbyterian.
“Everything went downhill,” McKie said. “I didn’t see but one or two students in the stands. All we had was the band, so it was definitely tough. I didn’t want to wear any of my Wake stuff around campus because people would look at you weird like you were a disgrace and you were a loser.”
Wake Forest went 8-24 in its first season under Bzdelik, winning one ACC game and finishing with the worst winning percentage in school history since 1968. The Deacons went 13-18 the next year, but the season was still replete with upset losses at home and poor conference play.
Fans and alumni criticized athletics director Ron Wellman for firing Gaudio after back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances and hiring Bzdelik, whose best season in four years as Colorado’s coach resulted in a 15-16 record.
But in the eyes of Wellman and Bzdelik, the program needed changing, and Wellman was going to give his coach the time needed to implement those changes.
From March 2011 to April 2012, seven players left Wake Forest for personal reasons, issues with playing time or suspensions/dismissals. Melvin Tabb and J.T. Terrell were dismissed from the program after arrests while Ty Walker and Ari Stewart were suspended for team rules violations and ultimately left .
“When Jeff came in we asked him to create a certain culture that was fitting of Jeff and would reflect very positively of the university,” Wellman said. “I told him when he came to make every decision for the long-term welfare of this program. Don’t make any decisions strictly for short-term success.
“We’ll sacrifice wins if need be for the long-term success of the program. And some of those decisions were really difficult decisions, but there was never any thought the last couple of years with doing anything different because he was following the plan.”
With his first true recruiting class coming to campus last fall, Bzdelik was finally starting to solidify the team he had in his vision.
Learning from the moment
This year started as ignominiously as the past two seasons, and the program hit one of its most trying stretches in late November.
The Deacons suffered consecutive losses at home to Nebraska and on the road at Richmond. Less than a week before Bzdelik decided to no longer take live call-ins during his weekly radio show, Wake Forest had allowed a 14-point second-half lead to Seton Hall at home and eventually lost 71-67 on Dec. 8.
Bzdelik’s squad wouldn’t lose again for nearly a month when it played No. 1 Duke.
“We were up 52-39 with 11 and change to go, and I thought we got tentative,” said Bzdelik of the Seton Hall game. “We learned from that experience. I really believe that experience helped us when we then won five out of six and six out of eight.
“I thought our team really learned from the Seton Hall game. And these are experiences we can draw on during timeouts. ‘Remember that game? It ain’t happening again.’ ”
He didn’t need to say that to his team in the huddle Tuesday night because they knew, he said. They remembered Seton Hall, the failed buzzer-beater against Virginia Tech earlier in the month and, more recently, the practice from the previous night.
As the clock ran down, McKie noticed something in the Joel he hadn’t seen in his three years. Students and fans began creeping down the stairs, readying for a court storm.
“I just got excited when they started to get at the bottom even though the game wasn’t over. I just started anticipating it,” McKie said. “It was a moment I’ll never forget.”
It took two and a half years, but Wake Forest finally had a win against a ranked opponent. And for that night, with jubilant students on the court and players on fans’ shoulders, Wake Forest was back.
“What it meant to me was,” said Bzdelik before taking a long pause, “as a coach I heard a saying, ‘I’m responsible for everybody’s happiness.’ And so for that moment everybody was happy.
“I mean this sincerely, and this is not the politically correct answer. I truly mean this. I was really, really happy.”