WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — We’ve seen this song and dance before — security in place to corral a boisterous student section set to celebrate a monumental Wake Forest win.
But twice before in the last 14 months those celebrations were halted because of late-game Demon Deacon collapses. The security guards went untested, the yellow rope went unused and the Joel Coliseum court was left unstormed.
As the 11-point mid-2nd half lead against No. 8 Louisville dwindled to three points Wednesday night with 4:01 left in the game, the home crowd seemed to be collectively wondering if they were in store for a repeat performance — the mood went from rowdy to worry as doubt began to creep in.
Back-to-back clutch plays by junior guard Mitchell Wilbekin set The Joel into a virtual tizzy once again.
Desperately seeking a paint touch for ACC Player of the Year candidate John Collins, Wilbekin penetrated diagonally on the left side toward Collins and his defender. The Louisville defense collapsed, and Wilbekin found Dinos Mitoglou open from the corner, who drained a 3-pointer to extend the lead to six with 2:58 left in the game.
The Deacs got a stop - a point that shouldn’t be overlooked, as they held the Cards to 39.4 percent field goal shooting in the second half (2-for-10 behind the arc), and then Wilbekin delivered again.
With the shot clock winding down, Wilbekin launched one from the left wing just barely a step in bounds — in was deep, probably at least a 25-footer. It was nothing but net, and Wilbekin flung his arms in joy as he turned to get back on defense with the Deacs now up nine with just over two minutes left.
The crowd went nuts and stayed on their feet the rest of the way — until they spilled onto the court at the final buzzer. Security, and that magic yellow rope, was finally put to the test as Wake Forest students rushed the court to celebrate with their team.
There was no late-game collapse. Instead there was late game heroics, as the Deacs toppled No. 9 Louisville 88-81 to grab the one thing they desperately needed for their NCAA Tournament resume — a signature win.
“Wake Forest should be congratulated, they played with great intensity,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. “They probably put themselves in the NCAA Tournament by beating us.”
The court was stormed and the The Quad was rolling. Smiles were all around as the Deacs pulled off the monumental win.
But it’s Thursday now, and there’s more work ahead. The Deacs moved into the “Last Four In” line by ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi, but those things change quickly. A loss Saturday at Virginia Tech could have Wake looking in from the outside yet again.
“We’ve got one more game to play and we’ll go from there,” Wake Forest coach Danny Manning said. “When the regular season is over, we’ll see where we stand and go from there.”