WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (AP)—Wake Forest blew most of a big lead before James Johnson saved the game—and maybe the rest of the season, too.
Johnson had career highs with 28 points and 18 rebounds to help the 13th-ranked Demon Deacons dodge another upset bid from North Carolina State, holding off the Wolfpack 85-78 on Thursday night.
Ishmael Smith added a season-high 18 points and Chas McFarland had 15 for the Demon Deacons (21-5, 8-5 Atlantic Coast Conference), who shot 52.5 percent, held a 42-27 rebounding advantage and led nearly all the way.
But with memories of last season’s 1-5 collapse still fresh, they allowed most of an early 15-point lead to slip away to a North Carolina State team that beat them 82-76 and was looking to pull another stunner.
Johnson wasn’t about to let it happen again.
“We’ve been working hard since the summertime,” Johnson said. “There’s no need to come out and just lose it now or not play hard now, when it counts, and then go back to the drawing board in the summertime, or keep working while we’re watching everybody else play in the NCAA tournament.”
He helped them recover in time to improve to 13-1 at home and win for the third time in four games. The victory moved Wake Forest into a three-way tie for third in the conference standings with No. 12 Clemson and No. 23 Florida State.
Tracy Smith scored 18 points to lead five double-figure scorers for the Wolfpack (15-11, 5-8), who were denied their second sweep of Wake Forest in coach Sidney Lowe’s three seasons.
Johnson had a double-double by halftime and was 12-of-16 from the field to surpass his previous top performance of 26 points—which he matched in the up-and-down Demon Deacons’ most recent outing, a 101-91 loss four nights earlier at No. 7 Duke.
“He was a man out there,” high-scoring guard Jeff Teague said.
Added coach Dino Gaudio: “He wouldn’t let us lose.”
The production they received from Johnson and Smith—who finished one point shy of a career high—made off nights from two key teammates that much easier to take.
Teague finished with 12 points—nine fewer than his average—on 3-of-12 shooting in his second tough game against N.C. State, which used a box-and-one defense to limit him to three shots and 11 points in the previous meeting.
The Wolfpack “knew they were playing against an explosive player, a guy that could put up big numbers,” Lowe said. “Our guys were really just trying to concentrate on making it as tough as possible.”
Additionally, freshman Al-Farouq Aminu missed all six of his shots and had just three points in his least productive night of the season.
“It’s good when (Teague) doesn’t play his very best, and Farouq doesn’t play his very best, and we can win a basketball game. That’s huge,” Gaudio said. “If we can get all of them clicking on the same cylinders, we know we can be a really good basketball team.”
Farnold Degand and Ben McCauley both had 12 points, and Dennis Horner and Brandon Costner added 10 apiece for N.C. State, which has lost two of three and slipped into 10th in the ACC.
The Wolfpack made things interesting late by getting within two points four times midway through the second half—the last coming on McCauley’s layup with 12:15 remaining—and then keeping it within three points late. Courtney Fells’ 3-pointer from the left corner made it 74-71 with 2:25 to play.
But Johnson scored on the Demon Deacons’ next two trips down court, hitting a jumper and then slamming home Smith’s alley-oop pass with just under 2 minutes to play to make it 78-71. Wake Forest went 7-of-8 from the line in the final minute to avoid its second two-game losing streak of the season.
“We knew N.C. State wasn’t going to wither and die … but we’re a resilient bunch,” Smith said. “We don’t want to make the same mistakes as last year.”
Johnson helped Wake Forest hit 15 of its first 20 shots, and the Demon Deacons held N.C. State to one field goal during a 7-minute stretch while stretching their lead to 15 points on Aminu’s free throw with 4:53 left in the first half.
The big man attributed his hot start to a pre-game speech given by assistant Jeff Battle, who Johnson said reflected on one of his Xavier teams that was preparing for a rematch against an opponent that had won a previous game in decisive fashion.
“They got killed by them, and when they got ready to do their scouting report … the guys just went up and erased (their man’s) name, said, ‘We’ve got it, Coach. We know what we’ve got to do,”’ Johnson said. “He said that reminded him of us.”
Meanwhile, the Wolfpack couldn’t have been much worse during that span, missing 11 of 12 shots. But McCauley hit a layup roughly 40 seconds later to start the 20-7 run that spanned halftime and made it a game again. Neither team led by more than nine after that.