WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (AP)—Justin Gray just couldn’t help himself.
After draining a contested jumper to single-handedly match North Carolina A&T’s point total late in the first half, Gray jokingly blurted out “I might get 40!” as he ran back to the bench for a timeout.
It was that kind of night for fifth-ranked Wake Forest, which had no trouble beating the Aggies 98-76 on Thursday night in its final tuneup before starting Atlantic Coast Conference play.
Gray scored 21 of his 23 points in the first half for the Demon Deacons (11-1), who spent much of the game shooting around 60 percent and led by 32 at halftime. Eric Williams added 19 points to help the Demon Deacons win their sixth straight.
It was a stress-free way to prepare for what will likely be a brutal ACC race, which the Demon Deacons were picked to win in the preseason. Seven league teams are ranked in The Associated Press top 25, including Wake Forest’s next opponent: No. 25 Virginia.
“Me personally, I really couldn’t wait for this to happen,” Williams said of the ACC season. “The ACC is such an intense conference. I really enjoy playing in it. … It’s just like opening a Christmas gift. You can’t wait to get things started.”
Sean Booker scored 18 points for the overmatched Aggies (1-11), who suffered a lopsided loss at Wake Forest for the third straight season.
The Demon Deacons showed little sign of rust from a weeklong layoff since an 81-64 win at New Mexico, shooting 64 percent in the first half. They finished with a 50-32 rebounding advantage and had 22 assists on 32 baskets.
Gray went 6-for-9 from the floor in the first half, including 5-for-7 from behind the 3-point arc, in just 14 minutes. He didn’t take a shot in the second half, hitting just two free throws.
Wake Forest hardly needed more against a Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference school located about 30 miles west in Greensboro. Williams went 9-for-10 from the floor and had a career-high five blocks, while Jamaal Levy added a career-high seven assists.
The Demon Deacons led 60-28 at halftime and pushed the margin to as much as 38 points in the second half.
“I think we played one of the better teams in the country tonight,” Aggies coach Jerry Eaves said. “They’ve got great depth and the potential to be ACC champions and perhaps go all the way. They are balanced, unselfish and they shot tremendously well in the first half.”
Gray came in 12 points short of 1,000 for his career, but didn’t need much time to become the 42nd player in school history to reach that mark. He hit three 3-pointers in the first seven minutes to go with two rebounds and two assists.
“Once you get going, you hit one, then you hit two, and you start feeling confident about the shots you put up,” Gray said.
Williams and Trent Strickland followed Gray’s third 3 with a pair of nifty baskets. On the first, Williams found Strickland cutting to the basket for a layup. On the second, Strickland returned the favor with a touch pass to Williams for a slam and a 30-17 lead.
From there, the only question was whether Gray would stay so hot from the field.
Gray kept it up, draining a straightaway 3 when he was inexplicably left alone by the Aggies a few minutes later.
He hit his fifth 3 of the half on a kickout from Chris Paul, then assisted on a layup by Vytas Danelius.
Finally, with about 5 1/2 minutes left in the half, Gray drained a jumper over Booker from the right side for his 21st point. That matched the entire Aggies team—which trailed 43-21—and prompted Gray to yell excitedly about hitting the 40-point mark.
“I had some good looks,” Gray said with a shrug. “My teammates did a good job of finding me and I just tried to knock them down and get in a rhythm. Sometimes when a player gets in a good rhythm, they feel like the basket opens up.”
Gray also helped hold Booker to three points on 0-for-6 shooting, as the Aggies shot 33 percent in the half.