CINCINNATI (AP)—Eric Williams knew it would come down to him.
Wake Forest’s versatile center was two inches taller than anyone on Cincinnati’s front line. With that advantage in mind, the Demon Deacons planned to spread out, get him the ball and let him score.
It only took a couple of shots for Williams to stop fretting.
The 6-foot-9 center scored a career-high 29 points, having his way with Cincinnati’s front line, and No. 3 Wake Forest never trailed in a 74-70 victory Saturday over the 20th-ranked Bearcats.
“I felt nervous,” Williams said. “I knew the kind of players we were playing against today. They play so hard. I was putting a lot of pressure on myself. I was telling myself I can’t let the team down coming off a loss.”
The Demon Deacons (16-2) rebounded from their overtime loss to Florida State by hitting their free throws down the stretch—something they didn’t do against the Seminoles.
Taron Downey missed a free throw with 4 seconds left against Florida State, ending Wake Forest’s NCAA record at 50 consecutive free throws made and sending it to overtime. He swished two free throws with 2 seconds left on Saturday to clinch the win, and Wake Forest made its last seven overall.
“We needed a game like this,” coach Skip Prosser said.
The Bearcats (15-3) had their biggest weaknesses exposed as they lost at home to a ranked team for the second time in eight days. They also fell by three points against Louisville last Saturday.
Neither 6-foot-7 Jason Maxiell nor 6-foot-6 Eric Hicks—the power forwards who anchor Cincinnati’s front line—could keep up with a taller player who shot over them once he got the ball.
“It was a gamble,” Hicks said. “By the time I got around him, he had it and would dunk.”
Chris Paul added 21 points for Wake Forest, which improved to 5-1 against ranked teams this season. Paul was 5-of-7 from behind the arc.
Hicks had 18 points, only two of them in the second half, to lead three Cincinnati players in double figures.
An intriguing matchup of one of the nation’s top offenses against one of the toughest defenses turned on the Bearcats’ inability to stop Williams. Wake Forest came in averaging 85.5 points per game and had scored 80 points in nine straight, its longest such streak since 10 in a row in 1976-77.
Cincinnati went after the Demon Deacons with a physical man-to-man defense that holds opponents to 35.8 percent shooting, fourth-best in the nation. It swarmed Williams but couldn’t keep him from getting the ball or going 13-of-18 from the field.
“Eric was given the opportunity, and he played extremely well,” Prosser said. “It’s difficult to guard him with one guy when he gets the ball with both feet in (the lane). During timeouts, the kids were saying, ‘We’ve got to get it in there.’ I said, ‘Well, you’re the guys who are out there.”’
Williams got the ball on four of the Demon Deacons’ first five possessions. Cincinnati went to a halfcourt trap that was totally ineffective—Williams had a pair of dunks and Paul made an uncontested 3-pointer that pushed it to 19-7.
“It seemed like he didn’t miss,” Cincinnati forward James White said of Williams. “We’ve got to do a better job of helping Eric and Max so he doesn’t touch the ball.”
Hicks had a three-point play and his second career 3-pointer, cutting it to 26-25. Wake Forest stayed in front by repeatedly going to Williams, who had 16 points in the first half, and Paul, who was 4-of-4 from behind the arc.
It was the same thing in the second half. Williams scored Wake Forest’s first two baskets, setting the tone. Jamaal Levy’s putback with 12:37 left put the Demon Deacons up 58-47.
Cincinnati got a pullup jumper from Armein Kirkland and a fastbreak layup by Chadd Moore that cut it to 64-61 with 5 minutes left. White’s two free throws cut it to 70-68 with 47 seconds left, and Paul missed a driving jumper, giving Cincinnati one last chance.
Following a timeout with 21 seconds to go, Maxiell missed a turnaround baseline jumper. Levy got the rebound and made both free throws with 10.2 seconds left. Downey’s two free throws then clinched it.
An hour before the tip-off, Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins sat down next to Prosser and shared a few laughs. Huggins and Prosser developed a friendship while Prosser coached Xavier from 1994-01, taking the edge off a crosstown rivalry that had turned bitter.
Prosser got the better of Huggins in their annual crosstown games, winning four of seven. Overall, Prosser is 6-4 in their head-to-head games.