High-scoring games are more the exception than the norm in this season’s unusually wide-open ACC, something that lately hasn’t bothered Wake Forest or Virginia Tech in the least.
Suffocating defense has boosted both the 23rd-ranked Demon Deacons and the Hokies to four-game winning streaks, and whichever team can pick up a fifth straight victory Tuesday night in Blacksburg will move into sole possession of second place.
Though Wake Forest (18-5, 8-3) ranks second-to-last in the 12-team ACC in points allowed (67.6 points per game), it’s eighth in the nation in opponents’ field-goal percentage (37.5).
Being able to play at a fast pace but clamp down in the half court has served the Demon Deacons well in an odd season for one of the nation’s historically higher-scoring leagues. The ACC has five of the top 13 field-goal percentage defenses among the six major conferences in 2009-10 after having only four that high in the last two seasons combined.
Wake Forest has held three of its last four opponents to 34.5 percent shooting or worse, and put on perhaps its most impressive defensive stretch of the season Saturday against then-No. 20 Georgia Tech. Down 62-60 midway through the second half, the Demon Deacons held the Yellow Jackets without a field goal for the final 8:50, closing on a 15-2 run to win 75-64.
“Coach said we stopped them 14 of the last 15 possessions,” said senior center Chas McFarland after his team pulled to within one game of league-leading Duke. “That’s huge. We just had to lock down.”
Wake Forest improved to 11-0 when holding opponents below 65 points, and 16-1 when the opposing team shoots below 41 percent.
It also improved to 11-1 when Al-Farouq Aminu, who had 19 points and 10 rebounds, scores at least 16 points.
“I think all the pieces are starting to come together,” said Aminu, who is the ACC’s leading rebounder (10.9 per game). “We’re starting to flow.”
Virginia Tech (20-4, 7-3) has the conference’s leading scorer in Malcolm Delaney (19.7 ppg), but its calling card is unquestionably a defense that’s one of the nation’s most frustrating.
The Hokies force 16.4 turnovers per game - tied for second in the ACC - and limit opponents to 61.1 points per game, tops in the conference.
Their last four opponents have combined to shoot 33.3 percent - 20.3 from 3-point range. Virginia Tech held rival Virginia to 32.8 percent shooting Saturday and forward Jeff Allen, plagued by first-half foul trouble, scored all 13 of his points after halftime to spark a 61-55 victory that pushed the Hokies to 13-0 at home.
“For Jeff to have the composure, after picking up two fouls in two minutes, and then coming back in the second half with a great sense of purpose and focus just speaks volumes of where he is right now,” coach Seth Greenberg said. “And he’s a big reason where our team is.”
Three of Virginia Tech’s four losses have come when Allen, third on the team with 11.6 points per game, has scored six or fewer.
The Hokies have never won five straight conference games since joining the ACC in 2004, and Wake Forest will have redemption on its mind as Greenberg’s club tries to do so for the first time.
Virginia Tech has won five of the series’ past six games, including a 78-71 win over the top-ranked Demon Deacons in Winston-Salem on Jan. 21, 2009.
Delaney had a game-high 21 points, while Allen chipped in with 16.