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Thrilling Triumph Hammered History

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

  January 17, 2005 WINSTON-SALEM — Wake Forest's victory over North Carolina was a win that came wrapped in many more layers than just a singularly important one for this season. That matchup has years of history woven through it, and the Demon Deacons' thrilling Jan. 15 victory, combined with other recent results, may have started to push the series in a direction it's never gone for an extended time — Wake's direction. Wake Forest fans may dislike a number of other schools, but they have a special place reserved for the Tar Heels and their supporters. One main reason is that no matter how good Wake was in basketball over the years, it seemed as if UNC always overshadowed it. Sometimes, it was just pure domination: The Deacons lost 58 of 72 matchups between the two schools from 1966-1992. Other times, it was more subtle frustration: Even when Wake came up with a huge win, with a team seemingly talented enough to steal the spotlight, it was UNC that somehow came out ahead in the end. In 1977, Rod Griffin had 21 points and 12 rebounds as Wake won at No. 4 UNC. But Wake lost in the first round of the ACC Tournament, lost in the third round of the NCAA Tournament and finished No. 9. UNC went on to finish No. 5, win the ACC Tournament and make the NCAA title game. In 1981, Mike Helms scored 20 points as Wake won at No. 10 UNC. But Wake lost to UNC in the ACC Tournament, lost in the first game of the NCAA Tournament and finished No. 11. UNC went on to finish No. 6, win the ACC Tournament and make the NCAA title game. Even in 1995, when Wake beat UNC twice (the Tar Heels were ranked No. 2 and 4), UNC was the team that ended up in the Final Four. So no matter what the Deacons have done or how good they've been, a win over North Carolina almost always has felt like an upset. And even when that did happen, Wake never could sustain any success in the series. But this year's victory was Wake's sixth in the last seven games against UNC, including wins in two straight seasons when the Tar Heels were ranked No. 4. While some may have considered this year's game an upset, in many ways it seemed much more like a talented (higher-ranked) team taking care of business at home instead of some sort of quest, as games against UNC have in the past. Even the makeup of the crowd showed the change in the series. For years, UNC fans had taken up a large part of the stands in Winston-Salem, but this time they were only scattered among the dominant yellow and black. Many of Wake's players are part of those layers of history. The Deacons have seven scholarship players from North Carolina (UNC has three), and most of them freely admit to being UNC fans growing up. They feel the long-time dynamic of the series in their bones. "(The win) means a lot," said sophomore point guard Chris Paul, who is from just outside Winston-Salem. "Wake Forest has come a long way. Growing up in Winston-Salem, the buzz has never been like it is now. Just knowing that we have so many different guys on our team from North Carolina, it means a little more. We understand the rivalry." The crowd for this year's UNC game and the strong turnout all season shows the success that Wake — its coaches, marketers and players — have had in turning the student body, alumni and, perhaps most importantly, people in Winston-Salem toward the university's basketball program. The Deacons are both hot and cool at the same time. Wake's players also are smart enough to know that the Deacs have never been a desired ticket for most Winston-Salem residents who aren't connected to the school. Several made mention of the city in their postgame comments, something reporters almost never hear from a college athlete. "The win was huge," Paul said, "just knowing how supportive the fans were and being able to get this win not only for our team but for the people of Winston-Salem." Junior guard Justin Gray said: "I grew up on Carolina basketball. For us to get this win, it's big for the city, for the school, all the people who are Wake fans." Schedule, Rotation Looking Good So can Wake Forest sustain this kind of momentum after such a big win? It would take a major derailment for the Demon Deacons not to. As the rest of the ACC cools off, it appears that Wake will play ranked teams back-to-back only once: at Cincinnati and at Georgia Tech on Jan. 22 and 27. After that, Wake will have back-to-back road games only once: Miami and Duke on Feb. 15 and 20. In addition, so many on-court elements seem to be coming together nicely for the Deacons. Against UNC, defense and free throws keyed the win, two factors often missing from Wake's attack. Coach Skip Prosser was asked if he had been waiting for a Wake win to feature success in those two areas. He started to launch into an answer, paused, then just said, "Yes." Senior forward Vytas Danelius continues to get stronger. In ACC play, his scoring average has jumped from 6.3 to 7.8 and his rebounds from 4.3 to 6.5. Wake's bench was part of the reason for its high preseason ranking, but it was up and down early. Helped by the emergence of junior forward Chris Ellis, who saw 19 minutes against UNC, Prosser is now going to it with full confidence. Against New Mexico, senior guard Taron Downey, junior forward Trent Strickland and Ellis helped blow the game open in the second half. Against Clemson, Ellis was in the lineup for the burst that opened the game up early in the second half. Against Maryland, Strickland and Downey helped Wake take control in the first half, and against UNC the bench outplayed the Tar Heels' vaunted depth. In the first half against Carolina, the lineup that took Wake from two down to 17-13 up included Downey, Strickland, Ellis and sophomore forward Kyle Visser. Prosser played the final five minutes of the first half with Downey, Strickland and Ellis on the court and extended the lead from four to 10. It's all of those elements that make Wake seem solidly like the ACC's best, not just some upstart trying to knock off the big boys.