The 76 Classic was certainly good to the Demon Deacons. It wasn't always pretty, and it did not come easy, but in the end the 3-0 trip to Anaheim was nothing but a success for Wake Forest.
The opener against Cal State Fullerton was a good game to ease in to playing quality opponents. The Titans are not one of the nation's big powers, but they showed Wake they can compete. The first half was a back and forth struggle. Wake started slow, shooting poorly and not rebounding well, but went on a nice run to end the half up by nine. The second half the Demon Deacons expanded the lead, but Fullerton would not go away. The Titans went on a run in the final minutes, making the game close. It was the first time this season Wake has been challenged at the end of a game, and it was definitely a good learning experience.
Jeff Teague scored 24 points in the game, while Al-Farouq Aminu and Chas McFarland both contributed 18. The team only shot 45%, but their 40% mark from beyond the arc was a step in the right direction. Free throw shooting, however, was a major disappointment at only 51%.
The victory allowed Wake to move on to a semi-final matchup with UTEP, a game that turned into a tough nail biter. An impressive 15-2 run in the middle of the first half gave Wake an early lead, but UTEP fought back with a spurt of their own to take a 33-31 lead with only minutes left in the half. For the second straight game Wake went on an impressive last minute run to finish the half with a lead. Midway through the second half Wake still led 64-52, but once again the Demon Deacons faced a late challenge and had to find a way to finish. Were it not for two clutch free throws by Jeff Teauge to end the game, UTEP may have completed the improbable upset.
It was not a very good performance for Wake, particularly on the boards. UTEP had 50 rebounds to only 33 for Wake Forest, a problem Wake had not yet encoutered this season. It was an excellent learning experience; the Deacons had to find a way to win despite not playing to the best of their abilities. No team will have their best game every night, and having an opportunity to learn how to deal with that early in the season should prove very valuable for this team down the road. Furthermore, Jeff Teague's 29 points solidified his status as a rising star.
With two wins under their belt Wake moved on to face Baylor in the 76 Classic championship game. The first half went back and forth, with the two teams exchanging leads seven times. The game was played at a frenetic pace, with both teams seeming to be on the verge of losing control. Wake's defense looked good but the offense couldn't find its rhythm and went in to half time down by one.
In the second half the Demon Deacons played their best basketball of the season. The offense was stellar, the defense equally good, and Wake's size and athleticism truly shined against an overmatched Baylor team. Wake led by as much as 14 and never let Baylor within five. They learned their lesson on the glass and out-rebounded the Bears 62-38, improved their free throw shooting to 70%, and managed to battle through a tough night from the field.
Teague did not shine quite as much as he did in the first two games, in large part due to a big fall in the first half that saw Teague leave the game for several minutes with an injured hip. Despite being banged up, Teague still contributed 14 points and 8 rebounds, while Al-Farouq Aminu, James Johnson, and L.D. Williams all contributed double-doubles. It was truly a team effort.
At the end of the tournament Wake had improved to 6-0 on the young season, had a change to find areas needing improvement, and learn what strengths they can exploit. Ultimately, regardless of the wins and losses, and early season tournament like this is most valuable for those learning experiences, and the victories come as a welcome addition.
The Demon Deacons are not a proven, polished power. Their brand of basketball is not always going to be pretty. Nonetheless, they are learning how to play together, work through adversity, finish games, and get the job done. All of those things are going to be very valuable as they work towards ACC play in January.