After struggling to put away a team it should have had an easier time with, Wake Forest likely won’t look past its next opponent.
The No. 19 Demon Deacons look to remain undefeated when they face upstart UTEP in the semifinals of the Anaheim Classic on Friday afternoon.
Wake Forest (4-0) outscored its previous three opponents heading into this event by an average of 36.3 points and had the potential for more of the same, but instead held on for a 75-69 victory over Cal State Fullerton in Thursday’s first round.
The Demon Deacons led by as many as 15 early in the second half, but some timely 3-pointers and tough defense helped the pesky Titans pull within three points before Wake regained control.
“It’s just win and advance and we were fortunate to do that,” Wake Forest coach Dino Gaudio said. “I thought our guys played very hard. As they made a run at us, we kept our composure.”
Next up for Wake is UTEP (3-1), which earlier in the day pulled off a 75-62 upset of a previously undefeated Saint Mary’s team that was on the cusp of entering the most recent AP Poll.
The winner of this contest will play for the tournament title Sunday night.
Though the Deacons might appear to have an easier road to the championship game than originally expected, they’ll likely have to put forth a complete effort and not allow an underdog like UTEP to hang around if they open another big lead.
Despite committing 18 turnovers and going 15-for-29 from the free-throw line, Wake was solid defensively against Fullerton, which shot 35.2 percent and turned the ball over 22 times.
“All year our defense has been pretty good,” said Gaudio, who’s team has allowed just one opponent to shoot better than 40 percent.
Jeff Teague had 24 points while forwards Al-Farouq Aminu and Chas McFarland each added 14 for the Deacons, who failed to shoot better than 50 percent for the first time in four games.
A sophomore guard who averaged 13.9 points last season, Teague is averaging 20.7 on 56.6 percent (30-for-53) shooting to open 2008-09.
Wake faces UTEP for the second time, with the Miners winning 90-75 on Dec. 28, 1985.
Coming off a 13-point home loss to UNLV on Monday, UTEP gained control early and maintained its advantage against Saint Mary’s, which is likely to challenge No. 9 Gonzaga for the top spot in the West Coast Conference.
Randy Culpepper had 20 points and senior guard Stefon Jackson, UTEP’s second all-time leading scorer, finished with 17 and 10 rebounds for the Miners, who led by 13 at halftime and held the Gaels to 36.1 percent shooting, including 3-for-24 from 3-point range.
“This was a good win for our team,” UTEP coach Tony Barbee said. “We’ve been practicing hard and our guys have been doing everything we’ve asked them to do, and that shows me the character of our team and quality of our young men.”
The sophomore Culpepper is averaging 20.5 points and Jackson 19.5 per game for UTEP, which has lost nine in a row versus ranked opponents dating to an 80-61 victory over then-No. 22 Fresno State on Feb. 17, 2001.