Taron Downey missed a free throw with 4 seconds left against Florida State, ending Wake Forest's NCAA record at 50 consecutive free throws and sending the game to overtime. But he swished two free throws with 2 seconds left on Saturday to clinch the win.
The Bearcats (15-3) lost at home to a ranked team for the second time in eight days. They also fell by three points against Louisville last Saturday.
Chris Paul added 21 points for Wake Forest, which improved to 5-1 against ranked teams this season. Paul was 5-of-7 from behind the arc.
Eric Hicks had 18 points, only two of them in the second half, to lead three Cincinnati players in double figures.
An intriguing matchup of one of the nation's top offenses against one of the toughest defenses turned on the Bearcats' inability to stop Williams, who was two inches taller than anyone on Cincinnati's front line.
Wake Forest came in averaging 85.5 points per game and had scored 80 in nine straight, its longest such streak since 10 in a row in 1976-77.
Cincinnati went after the Demon Deacons with a physical man-to-man defense that holds opponents to 35.8 percent shooting, fourth-best in the nation. It switched defenders against Williams but couldn't keep him from getting the ball or shooting short jumpers - he went 13-of-18 from the field.
Wake Forest came out with one thing in mind: Get the ball inside to the 6-foot-9 center, who touched it on four of the Demon Deacons' first five possessions. Cincinnati went to a halfcourt trap that was totally ineffective - Williams had a pair of dunks and Paul made an uncontested 3-pointer that pushed it to 19-7.
Three consecutive Wake Forest turnovers allowed Cincinnati to make up ground. The Bearcats struggled to get into an offensive flow, relying on Nick Williams' long-range shooting and baskets off rebounds.
Hicks had a three-point play and his second career 3-pointer, cutting it to 26-25. Wake Forest stayed in front by repeatedly going to Williams, who had 16 points in the first half, and Paul, who was 4-of-4 from behind the arc.
It was the same thing in the second half. Williams scored Wake Forest's first two baskets, setting the tone. Jamaal Levy's putback with 12:37 left put the Demon Deacons up by double digits again, 58-47.
Cincinnati got a pullup jumper from Armein Kirkland and a fastbreak layup by Chadd Moore that cut it to 64-61 with 5 minutes left. James White's two free throws cut it to 70-68 with 47 seconds left, and Paul missed a driving jumper, giving Cincinnati one last chance.
Following a timeout with 21 seconds to go, Jason Maxiell missed a turnaround baseline jumper. Levy got the rebound and made both free throws with 10.2 seconds left. Downey's two free throws then clinched it.
An hour before the tip-off, Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins sat down next to Wake Forest's Skip Prosser and shared a few laughs. Huggins and Prosser developed a friendship while Prosser coached Xavier from 1994-01, taking the edge off a crosstown rivalry that had turned bitter.
Prosser got the better of Huggins in their annual crosstown games, winning four of seven. Overall, Prosser is 6-4 in their head-to-head games.