Wake Forest Takes Down Chattanooga

Chris Paul sat down on Wake Forest's bench to soak in the final seconds. He pulled on his warm-up top, leaned back and smiled. The view was much better than he remembered it.

Paul had come back and made the Demon Deacons whole.

"With him, it's like we're one big happy family again," said forward Eric Williams. "It's like the puzzle is complete."

Paul returned from a one-game suspension for punching a player and he and the second-seeded Demon Deacons shook off a horrible first half for a 70-54 win over Chattanooga in the NCAA tournament on Thursday night.

Paul scored 20 points - 13 in the second half - and added six rebounds and five assists to pace Wake Forest (27-5), which didn't play like one of the pre-tourney favorites until midway through the second half.

The Demon Deacons struggled with the Mocs (20-11), who threatened to become just the fifth No. 15 seed to win a first-round game since the tournament expanded in 1985.

Paul made sure that didn't happen, though, making several big plays in a game-closing 32-16 run as Wake Forest advanced in the Albuquerque Regional to play in Saturday's second round against either West Virginia (21-10) or Creighton (23-10).

The sophomore was back on the floor for the first time since March 6, when he struck North Carolina State's Julius Hodge in the groin during the final regular-season game. The low blow resulted in a suspension for Paul, who spent the opening round of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament on Wake's bench in a gold three-piece suit.

The Demon Deacons lost without him, a defeat that probably cost them a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs.

But back in his white No. 3 jersey, Paul dominated in the second half. When Wake needed a steal or basket, he got one. And when the Demon Deacons needed to settle down, Paul took control. After making 10 turnovers in the first half, they had five in the second.

"He was out of sync a little bit," Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser said. "But in the second half he looked more Chris Paul."

Paul admitted being nervous as he struggled to find his game.

"Coach kept telling me, 'You have to play with confidence,"' Paul said. "I told him after the game it was just a little tournament jitters. I hope I'm over them now."

Chris Brown scored 14 points and Alphonso Pugh 13 for Chattanooga, which doomed itself with 22 turnovers.

But for nearly 30 minutes, the Southern Conference champions were equal to one of the ACC's best.

"Up by 10, I felt pretty good about Chattanooga and our league," Mocs coach John Shulman said. "Getting beat by 16, I felt happy about Chattanooga and the league. Our kids played as hard as we can play."

The Mocs led 38-35 when Paul hit a 3-pointer, and Wake Forest started to do its damage from long range. Trent Strickland hit a 3-pointer and Taron Downey made a pair of 3s on consecutive trips as the Demon Deacons went up 53-45 with 9:29 to go.

Wake Forest kept pouring it on but getting their school record 27th win wasn't as easy as many imagined.

The first half was ragged, and that's being polite, as the teams combined for more turnovers (22) than field goals (20).

"We need to find out if that first half was Chattanooga or us," Prosser said. "If we play like that on Saturday, we'll be on a plane going home."

Back in the tournament for the first time since 1997, the Mocs weren't intimidated by Wake Forest's reputation, record or ranking, charging to a 23-12 lead in the first half on Brown's 3-pointer.

As the ball dropped through the net, Chattanooga's cheering section let out a roar while others in the Wolstein Center exchanged incredulous looks.

But what was happening was very real, and it took a 9-4 run, capped by Paul's 3-pointer - only Wake's second in 15 tries - in the final second to pull the Demon Deacons within 27-24 at the break.

Early on, everything Paul did was a little off. His balletic spins and ankle-breaking crossover dribble didn't shake Chattanooga defenders. And whenever it seemed the Demon Deacons or their star were about to take off, the Mocs answered.

But they had no reply for him or Wake Forest later - when it mattered most.

"You saw how good Chris Paul is," Shulman said. "They stepped up to the plate when they had to."

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