Deacons clean up the glass, take care of Irish, 81-69

jjones@charlotteobserver.comMarch 12, 2014 

— From the second basket of the game, Devin Thomas was feeling it.

Thomas got a layup and a foul in the opening minutes of Wake Forest’s 81-69 win against Notre Dame and let out a barbaric yawp to the Greensboro Coliseum crowd.

Later in the game with his Deacons up by 12, Thomas got a similar roll on a layup and foul and raised both arms, flexing his muscles in front of the Wake Forest pep band.

For Thomas and Wake Forest, there was finally a show of strength at the ACC tournament.

Wake Forest’s opening-round victory against the Irish (15-17) gave the Deacons (17-15) their first postseason win with coach Jeff Bzdelik and the team’s first ACC tournament win since 2007.

“When he gets double-digit rebounds, our record is very, very good, and he anchors our defense inside,” sad Bzdelik of Thomas, who posted the game’s only double-double with 19 points and 10 rebounds. “He was very aggressive going to the rim. He felt very confident.”

The Deacons entered the game 5-1 when Thomas recorded at least 10 rebounds. Thomas also brutalized Notre Dame earlier this season for 21 points and six rebounds on 10-of-11 shooting.

Notre Dame coach Mike Brey called Thomas the player who “has really haunted us.”

“I was just trying to set the emotion for the team and make sure we don’t come out slow,” said Thomas, who has nursed a hamstring and other injuries this week. “And hopefully that gave us a lot of energy today to get us started.”

But it wasn’t just Thomas who hit the glass for the Deacons on Wednesday. Wake Forest outrebounded Notre Dame 33-23, and the plus-10 differential was a point of emphasis for Bzdelik going into the tournament.

During warmups, he had his assistant coaches run a defensive rebounding drill that involved a three-man rotation. Two Deacons would line up on the low blocks while another would be at the top of the key, and the three would rotate while trying to collect a missed shot.

After the win, Bzdelik joked that he should have been doing the drill earlier in the season.

“It’s been our Achilles’ heel all year long,” Bzdelik said. “We would get stops, but we would never culminate those stops with defensive rebounds.”

The Deacons had its largest lead of the game with six minutes remaining at 62-48. Coron Williams, playing in his first ACC tournament, was a big part of that margin, going 7 for 8 from the floor and scoring a game-high 25 points.

Williams hit 4 of 5 shots from 3-point range, and Wake Forest as a team finished the game going 7 for 10 from deep.

Wake Forest will next play Pittsburgh at 2 p.m. Thursday. The Panthers beat Wake Forest 80-65 in the regular season while outrebounding the Deacons 38-28. Bzdelik said defensive rebounding will again be a point of emphasis heading into the second-round match.

The win Wednesday ensures the Deacons will finish with a record of at least .500 for the first time with Bzdelik in his four-year tenure.

“I have the responsibility to win; I get that,” Bzdelik said. “And I have a responsibility to protect the integrity of the university, and I get that, and there can’t be a trade off between one or the other.”

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Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9

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