RALEIGH, N.C. (AP)—Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser jokingly refers to the Demon Deacons’ recent seasons as the “S.T.” era: Since Tim Duncan.
Chris Paul could be on his way to changing that.
The freshman point guard had 29 points, eight rebounds and six assists Saturday to lift Wake Forest past Manhattan 84-80 in the second round of the East Rutherford Regional.
Paul went 10-for-14 from the floor and 8-for-9 from the line for the fourth-seeded Demon Deacons (21-9), who made it through the NCAA tournament’s opening weekend for the first time in eight years. Wake Forest will face top-seeded Saint Joseph’s—a 70-65 winner over Texas Tech—in the third round.
“Sometimes I just find myself watching (Paul),” said Justin Gray, Wake Forest’s leading scorer this season who was limited to just six points. “It seems like he’ll go on a run by himself … I’m glad on his team, I can tell you that much.”
Luis Flores had 20 points and Dave Holmes added 19 for the 12th-seeded Jaspers (25-6), who reached the second round with a 75-60 upset of fifth-seeded Florida.
Manhattan was the toast of the Big Apple after its upset of the Gators, with former New York Mayor and Manhattan graduate Rudy Giuliani calling to congratulate coach Bobby Gonzalez. But the unflappable Paul wouldn’t let the Jaspers repeat their first-round magic, repeatedly making big plays to leave No. 12 seed Pacific as the lowest-seeded team left in the tournament.
“I thought Chris Paul was the best guard we’ve played against all year, literally the best player we saw all season,” Gonzalez said. “He’s a whole different level.”
The Demon Deacons hadn’t made it through the first two rounds since Duncan led them to the round of eight in 1996. Wake Forest missed the tournament from 1998-2000 and had three early exits after that in a period Prosser dubbed “S.T.”
That included two straight second-round losses, including last year’s loss as a No. 2 seed to Auburn.
But Paul is writing his own history.
“We love being together,” Paul said of his teammates. “We love the meetings and practices, and we didn’t want that to end right now.”
In last week’s Atlantic Coast Conference tournament loss to Maryland, Paul had 30 points, nine assists, four rebounds and two steals. He followed that with 22 points and seven assists in the 79-78 NCAA first-round win against Virginia Commonwealth.
On Saturday, he had three steals and two blocks with just one turnover in 38 minutes.
He was most clutch at the end. The Jaspers twice closed the gap to two in the final two minutes, but Paul answered each time.
After Jason Benton’s stickback cut the deficit to two, Paul banked in a drive over Kenny Minor for an 82-78 lead with 1:25 to play. Manhattan pulled back within two, then Paul sealed it by finding Trent Strickland alone under the basket for a slam with 11.2 seconds left.
That play was set up when Paul was tied up in a double team, forcing a jump ball call with 13.6 seconds to play. The arrow favored Wake Forest, giving the Demon Deacons the ball with just five seconds on the shot clock.
“The alternate possession rule for us was the worst rule in the history of college basketball,” Gonzalez said.
“I think it’s the greatest rule ever invented,” Prosser said.
The Demon Deacons needed everything Paul gave them in this game. Gray, who averages 17 points, shot just 2-for-9, while 6-foot-9 center Eric Williams had just four points and was limited to 18 minutes before fouling out.
Paul was dynamic from the start, scoring 16 points on 6-for-7 shooting in the first half to help the Demon Deacons to a 48-35 lead at the break.
The Jaspers got back into the game with a full-court press, double-teamming Paul to force someone else to handle the ball. Jason Wingate drained a 3-pointer after a turnover in the backcourt to make it 50-46 early in the second half.
But Paul continually turned away runs by the Jaspers, almost single-handedly carrying Wake Forest.
“When you’re battling uphill, climbing, climbing, climbing, it’s tough,” Gonzalez said.
With Wake clinging to a 73-69 lead, Paul scored on a drive and drew a foul on Wingate. He completed the three-point play for the 76-69 lead with 5:42 left.
He penetrated and found Jamaal Levy for a layup on the right side and a 78-71 lead with 4:35 to play. Flores hit a 3 on the next possession, but Paul answered with two free throws for an 80-74 lead with 3:28 left.
“Usually we try to get the ball to No. 3 against pressure,” Prosser said. “We feel comfortable that he’s going to make a pretty good decision.”