Mitchell Wilbekin has been around Wake Forest long enough to know he had never won an ACC game on the road, but he had no idea how long it had actually been since the Deacons did. So he asked a trainer.
“He couldn’t tell me,” the junior guard said.
The answer, apparently lost in the hazy fog of the past, was Jan. 22, 2014, before either Wilbekin or third-year coach Danny Manning were on campus. Now, after this 93-88 win over N.C. State, Manning can claim tangible progress having broken the 25-game skid, even if there’s still a long way to go.
“We’re happy about it,” Manning said, with a shrug. “But we’ve got more to play. We feel like we’ve put ourselves in situations to have success on the road. We just haven’t finished well.”
Two listing ships passed in the afternoon on Saturday, each desperately seeking a safe harbor. Wake Forest finally has an ACC road win to its credit – its first under Manning in 21 tries, its first since 2014, its second in 44 games. The Deacons are 3-4 in the ACC, done with North Carolina and Virginia and have a decent shot at 9-9, especially if they can double or even triple their road win total at Syracuse and Boston College in the next 10 days.
But N.C. State, its season hanging in the balance even before this loss, now faces what is likely to be an impassible road to the NCAA tournament at 2-5 in the ACC, lacking the nonconference wins to bolster its at-large position while requiring an unlikely five wins in Brooklyn. State being State, a home loss to Wake Forest for the first time in 12 years will surely be followed by the Wolfpack’s first win at Duke in 22 years on Monday, according to the Law of the Wolfpack or N.C. State, uh, Scatology or whatever.
Believers in the latter will with some justification point to a spate of questionable calls that went against N.C. State in the late going, culminating in Terry Henderson being called out of bounds after stealing Wake Forest’s inbounds pass with 9.1 seconds to go. Replays appeared to show Henderson avoiding the end line; while the ACC later said the play was not reviewable, N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried said official Jamie Luckie told him “he didn’t need to review it. He had it for sure.”
“Have you watched it? Go watch it,” Gottfried said. “Life moves on.”
It certainly does, and as is so often the case, the Wolfpack never should have let it come down to a fickle whistle (or three) at the end. The game was there for the taking with eight minutes to go, and N.C. State failed to capitalize. After John Collins bricked a dunk into the rim and Dennis Smith Jr. was fouled shooting a 3 and made all three free throws, Collins turned it over with an illegal screen.
So there it was. N.C. State was down 68-67 with the ball heading into a Wake Forest timeout, the Deacons reeling, the building buzzing. The Wolfpack missed its next six shots, not including a pair of free throws, as Wake Forest ran its lead to 10. The missed shots were less of a problem at that point than the Wolfpack’s typically anemic defense, but the two together over that two-minute, game-deciding span encapsulated the unfortunate reality that N.C. State isn’t actually as talented as its flashy roster would imply.
That left it to the final minute, when N.C. State cut Wake Forest’s lead from nine to two in 35 seconds despite the debatable calls – Henderson appeared to be fouled on a dunk with no whistle, Abdul-Malik Abu was called for pushing Bryant Crawford out of bounds despite appearing to step aside – before the Henderson out-of-bounds call, with the Wolfpack down three.
As Wake Forest can attest, when you let everything come down to the final seconds, so much can go wrong, including, but not limited to, the officiating. The Deacons have lost so many games that way. They finally won one, despite trying their best to give it away.
And as N.C. State laments a season that appears to be going nowhere, the Deacons can look ahead to a season that may actually go somewhere for the first time in seven years.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock