WINSTON-SALEM, North Carolina (Ticker)—Justin Gray turned something out of nothing and ensured that the road to the Atlantic Coast Conference title will go through Wake Forest.
Gray banked in an off-balance 3-pointer to snap a late tie as the 11th-ranked Demon Deacons extended their home winning streak to 15 games with a 75-71 victory over stubborn Virginia.
Wake Forest (19-4, 9-3 ACC) moved one-half game ahead of Duke and Maryland for the lead in the conference and controls its destiny. All-American candidate Josh Howard scored 28 points to lead the way, but it was Gray who came up big down the stretch.
The game was tied, 68-68, with 1:44 left when the Demon Deacons called a timeout with three seconds to go on the shot clock. Gray inbounded to fellow freshman Eric Williams, who handed it back. With time winding down, the 6-2 Gray launched a shot off one foot over the 6-8 Jason Clark and banked it in to give Wake Forest the lead for good.
“I knew we only had three ticks to get a shot, but I guess that’s why you pray at night,” Gray said. “I knew I got it off in time, but I wasn’t sure it was going in. And I didn’t even call glass.”
“His bank shot was one helluva shot,” Virginia coach Pete Gillen said. “It’s a tough shot and it’s just part of the game. We had our best defender on him and he still banked it in from 23 feet.”
Todd Billet split a pair at the line 14 seconds later for Virginia (14-11, 5-8) and the Cavaliers got back the ball after Billet came up with a steal. But Billet lost his dribble and Gray tied him up for a jump ball, with the possession arrow favoring the Demon Deacons with 19 seconds left.
Vytas Danelius and Howard each sank a pair of foul shots in the final 20 seconds to seal the win. Danelius made his two with 19 seconds to go after Gillen employed a bit of gamesmanship by trying to insert an illegal substitution in an attempt to freeze the foul shooter.
“We just decided that we were going to put our foot down and finish things off,” Howard said. “When it came to winning time, I guess we just wanted it more.”
The Demon Deacons were not expected to be a factor in the ACC race with a freshman and three sophomores surrounding Howard in the starting lineup. Wake Forest last shared the conference regular-season crown in 1995 and has finished the season in the top spot just once in 1962.
Danelius scored 21 points and Gray, who missed eight games earlier this season with a broken jaw, chipped in nine for Wake Forest, which committed 17 turnovers. Taron Downey contributed six of the team’s 17 assists as the Demon Deacons capped a rough week in which they had travel problems at road games at Maryland and Georgia Tech.
“We’ve had a lot of games and a lot of travel, and we’ve played three games this week,” said Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser, a former assistant under Gillen. “The game might not have been as well played as we liked, but our kids possessed the necessary grit we needed to win the game.”
Virginia held a 31-28 edge on the glass and became the first team to outrebound Wake Forest, the nation’s leading rebounding team. But scorching 70 percent (16-of-23) percent shooting by the Demon Deacons in the second half was the difference.
Billet scored 25 points to lead Virginia, which dropped its fourth straight and lost any chance of finishing above .500 in ACC play. Elton Brown had 19 points and Devin Smith 18 for the Cavaliers, who have lost seven of their last eight on the road.
“I’m very disappointed we did not win tonight,” Gillen said. “You have to give Wake Forest credit. We don’t play for moral victories, but I’m proud of our team and the way we played.”
Billet’s 14 first-half points helped Virginia take a 35-30 lead into the locker room. The second half featured 11 lead changes, but a layup by Brown gave the Cavs a 68-64 advantage with 3:28 to go.
Howard converted a runner in the lane and Gray did the same to tie it at 68-68. Billet and Smith missed jumpers for Virginia before Gray’s back-breaking 3-pointer.
Virginia’s Travis Watson, the team’s leading scorer, missed a class and did not start for just the second time this season. He was held to three points and three rebounds and made his only basket with 4:45 left.