Wake Forest wakes up in overtime
NEW ORLEANS – The most chaotic finish of a wild opening day of NCAA tournament action ended with two iconic images of March.
There was Wake Forest’s Ishmael Smith leaping into the arms of teammate Chas McFarland after burying the game-winning pull-up jumper. And there was Texas’ Gary Johnson lying flat on his back in the middle of the floor with his head buried in his jersey after missing the two free throws that made that shot possible.
Smith’s 17-foot jumper with 1.8 seconds left in overtime gave ninth-seeded Wake Forest an 81-80 victory and sealed the eighth-seeded Longhorns’ bewildering late-season collapse. The Demon Deacons led by 11 in the first half and 12 in the second, yet needed to rally from an eight-point overtime deficit to earn a second-round date with top-seeded Kentucky on Saturday afternoon.
“That has to be the biggest shot I’ve ever hit,” Smith said. “In the regular season, you live to play another game. Now you’re in a position where if you lose, you go home. So this is probably No. 1.”
If the thrilling victory gives Wake Forest (20-10) the boost it needed to emerge from a dismal stretch of five losses in six games, it also condemns Texas (24-10) to an offseason worth of scathing criticism. The Longhorns ascended to the top of the polls in mid-January after starting the season 17-0, but they collapsed in stunning fashion immediately afterward, finishing with losses in 10 of 17 games.
“I’ll remember this season for a bunch of guys who stood by each other and didn’t give up,” red-eyed Texas senior Justin Mason said after the game. “We don’t really care what the critics had to say about how far we made it or where we came from. We made big strides as a team.”
The matchup between Texas and Wake Forest was billed as a battle of underachievers this week, and the game did little to alter that perception. There were blown layups, errant passes, ill-advised shots, a combined 22 missed free throws and one badly botched finishing sequence to regulation.
With Wake Forest leading by one and inbounding under the Texas basket with 13 seconds left, guard L.D. Williams was called for traveling because he slid along the baseline to try to throw the ball in rather than remaining stationary. Texas star Damion James left Wake Forest nine seconds to avoid overtime after making 1 of 2 free throws on Texas’ final possession, but the Deacons failed to get a shot off because Williams lost control of his dribble heading up-court.
Still shell-shocked from failing to close out the game in regulation, Wake Forest surrendered the first eight points in overtime, freshman guards J’Covan Brown (20 points) and Jordan Hamilton (19) each hitting big threes. It would have been enough to crush the hope of many teams, but the Deacons have gritted out similar situations already this season.
“We’ve been though four overtimes this year, and we’ve won all four,” forward Ari Stewart said. “In the back of our heads, we knew if we lost this game, our season was over. We had to make a play every possession.”
Stewart did just that on Wake Forest’s second-to-last possession, knocking down a contested corner 3-pointer with 16 seconds left. Then the Deacons fouled Johnson and the 70.1 percent foul shooter clanked both, paving the way for Smith to go the length of the floor to win it for Wake Forest.
Smith finished with 19 points, 12 rebounds, 7 assists and eight turnovers, but there was only one play he wanted to see when he and teammate Al-Farouq Aminu walked by a TV in the bowels of the New Orleans arena after their post-game news conference. They stood and watched for about three minutes waiting for the replay of Smith’s game-winner to come on before the Wake Forest guard turned to his teammate and said, “That’s OK, we’ll watch it tonight.”
A season-saving shot like that, it’s probably safe to say he’ll watch it a few times.