James Johnson’s subpar play down the stretch last season was partly to blame for Wake Forest’s collapse. He seems intent on making sure it doesn’t happen again.
With Johnson enjoying the best scoring stretch of his career, the 13th-ranked Demon Deacons look to remain in the hunt for first place in the ACC when they visit Virginia on Saturday.
Wake Forest (21-5, 8-5) missed the postseason last year after losing five of its last six games. Johnson, who led the Demon Deacons with 14.6 points per game as a freshman in 2007-08, scored 10 or fewer in three of his last four and shot 37.5 percent from the field over that stretch.
With three games left this season, Wake Forest still has a slim chance to catch first-place North Carolina, and Johnson’s play is a big reason the team hasn’t folded again.
Johnson had career highs with 28 points and 18 rebounds against North Carolina State on Thursday night, helping the Demon Deacons dodge an upset with an 85-78 victory. Wake Forest let most of an early 15-point lead slip away before pulling away and avoiding a second loss this season to the Wolfpack.
Johnson has yielded to leading scorer Jeff Teague (20.0 points per game) this season, but he’s averaging 26.0 points and 13.3 rebounds while shooting 73.3 percent from the field in his last three.
“We’ve been working hard since the summertime,” said Johnson, averaging 14.8 points on the season. “There’s no need to come out and just lose it now or not play hard now, when it counts, and then go back to the drawing board in the summertime, or keep working while we’re watching everybody else play in the NCAA tournament.”
Wake Forest has won three of its last four and is in a three-way tie for third in the conference with No. 12 Clemson and No. 23 Florida State, two games behind the fourth-ranked Tar Heels.
With Johnson leading the way, the Demon Deacons overcame a poor shooting night from Teague and Al-Farouq Aminu on Thursday.
Teague finished with 12 points on 3-of-12 shooting following a 28-point effort in a 101-91 loss at then-No. 9 Duke on Sunday. Aminu, averaging 12.6 points, went 0-for-6 and had three points in his worst game of the season.
“It’s good when (Teague) doesn’t play his very best, and Farouq doesn’t play his very best, and we can win a basketball game. That’s huge,” coach Dino Gaudio said. “If we can get all of them clicking on the same cylinders, we know we can be a really good basketball team.”
Teague was held to six points in an 80-64 home win over Virginia (9-15, 3-10) on Feb. 9, 2008, the teams’ only meeting last season. Johnson had 21 points and eight rebounds.
The Cavaliers shot 33.3 percent and committed 16 turnovers in that game.
Virginia has struggled on offense this season, averaging 67.4 points and shooting 40.8 percent en route to losing 11 of its last 14. The Cavaliers shot 40.0 percent (20-for-50) in a 62-55 loss to Miami on Thursday night.
It was Virginia’s first loss in its last three home games.
“Wake Forest is another good team and in this conference you never get a day off,” freshman guard Sylven Landesberg said. “You are going to play a good team every night so we just need to get back to work to get ready for them.”
Landesberg tops the Cavaliers with 17.8 points a game.
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