WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (AP)—One solid shooting night was all it took for Justin Gray to forget a string of poor performances.
Gray was nearly flawless Saturday, scoring 26 points to lead No. 19 Wake Forest to a 91-78 victory over Virginia.
He made his first four shots of the game, including three 3-pointers, to spark the Demon Deacons (13-4, 4-3 Atlantic Coast Conference) to an early lead that Virginia (12-6, 2-5) never challenged.
It was a confidence-builder for Gray, who had been in a mini-slump that hit bottom last Sunday in a 1-for-10 performance in a loss to Florida State.
“I told him the other day after he was 1-for-10 that I am never going to take you out for taking a shot,” Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser said. “He’s a good shooter and I don’t want him hesitating, I want him shooting the ball.”
Gray finished 7-of-10 from the field, went 5-for-8 on 3-pointers and was 7-of-8 from the line. He also led Wake Forest with six rebounds and four assists.
“When Coach gives me the green light, it makes me more comfortable knowing he’s behind me 100 percent,” Gray said. “He showed me the other day some stats I had last year in back-to-back bad games, and then showed me I came back with like 26 points after that. He just told me shooters have bad nights sometimes, keep shooting.”
Trent Strickland added 14 points, Taron Downey scored 13, and Jamaal Levy and Kyle Visser had 10 each.
Wake Forest leading scorer Eric Williams continued his six-game slump with just four points and one rebound before fouling out with 7:27 to play. Williams, who averages 14.1 points, has scored a combined 41 in the Deacons’ last six games.
“I acknowledge I am in a slump, but I won’t get down about it,” Williams said. “I had good looks today and the ball just wasn’t falling. It wasn’t falling for Justin two weeks ago, and now it is. It will fall for me again.”
Elton Brown led Virginia (12-6, 2-5) with 24 points. Derrick Byars added 18 in a pathetic offensive performance for the Cavaliers. They missed all 12 of their 3-point attempts, had 19 turnovers and went 16-of-27 from the free throw line.
The Cavaliers were able to make the final score look respectable with a late push after Wake Forest emptied its bench.
“We were swinging,” Virginia coach Pete Gillen said. “We kept scratching and clawing. And if you hit some 3s … but we didn’t hit a 3 all game.”
The Deacons opened the game with the three-guard lineup that had gone 9-0 before Prosser temporarily went back to the more traditional starting unit.
The switch worked extremely well as Downey, Gray and Chris Paul combined to score Wake Forest’s first 27 points of the game. The Deacons started a perfect 6-for-6 from the field and Gray and Downey started a perfect 6-for-6 from 3-point range.
It sparked Wake Forest to an early 37-10 lead that Virginia couldn’t overcome.
“They came out and like a fight, in the first 10, 20 seconds, the guy just swings and knocks you on your back,” Gillen said. “They were on fire, they played great, and we were stunned.”
Wake Forest took a 44-27 lead into halftime, then watched as Virginia tried to chip away. The Cavaliers got consecutive baskets from Gary Forbes and Jason Clark to cut it to 56-42, but Wake answered with a 9-0 run capped by Strickland rebounding Visser’s missed free throw and slamming it in for a 65-42 lead.
The game then got away from Virginia, which played little defense over the next 90 seconds as Wake Forest put the game away. Levy opened a quick scoring spurt with a dunk, Strickland hit a 3 and scored on a dunk and Gray made his fifth 3-pointer of the game for a 75-47 Wake Forest lead with 8:24 to play.