Wake Forest’s long-running search for its first ACC victory of the season is over.
The Deacons found it on the backboards in a 76-69 win against Georgia Tech on Saturday in front of 11,514 at Joel Coliseum.
“We knew we had to win the rebounding war if we wanted to win the game,” junior Devin Thomas said.
Converting 15 offensive rebounds into 19 second-chance points, Wake Forest overcame some sloppy ballhandling and shaky free-throw shooting to lead for the final 31 minutes. The result was the first ACC win not only for Coach Danny Manning, but also for newcomers Greg McClinton, Mitchell Wilbekin, Cornelius Hudson, Dinos Mitoglou, Darius Leonard and Rondale Watson.
Thomas compensated for seven turnovers with 17 points and 14 rebounds, and four teammates contributed at least nine points as Wake Forest improved to 9-8 overall and 1-3 in ACC play going into Tuesday’s game at Syracuse. Georgia Tech fell to 9-6 and 0-3.
“I’m happy, but we need more,” Manning said afterward. “I’m happy, but we need more.”
Leonard, a grad-student transfer from Campbell who scored 13 points, said the win provided a huge relief.
“Once you’re piling up losses and you get deep in the conference and still have to wonder when you’re going to get your first win, it brings a lot of stress and pressure onto the team,” Leonard said. “Just being able to say ‘We’ve got one,’ now everybody can shake that off and get back to playing our style of basketball.”
Georgia Tech, featuring burly transfers Charles Mitchell and Demarco Cox, ranked fourth in the nation with a rebounding margin of plus-10.9 a game. The Deacons won the battle of the boards 41 rebounds to 29, becoming the first team this season to out-rebound the Yellow Jackets.
Mitchell, hampered by foul trouble, pulled down only four and Cox finished with a team-most seven.
Thomas, who had all four the Deacons’ offensive rebounds in Wednesday’s 73-65 home loss to Duke, had plenty of support on the backboards Saturday, as six teammates contributed at least three rebounds.
“They went after us,” Coach Brian Gregory of Georgia Tech said. “That’s not who we are, that’s not what we do and that’s not good.
“That’s what put us in a position where we’re a pretty good team and we’re in every game, is our rebounding and our overall defense. And neither one was up to the level it needed to be. Give Wake Forest credit for that.”
After 34 hard-fought minutes, Cornelius Hudson drilled a 3-pointer from the right corner for a 63-53 lead. But with Mitchell making his 6-8, 269-pound presence felt inside, the Yellow Jackets scored on five of six possessions to carve the lead to 65-62 with 3:54 remaining.
Wake Forest changed defensive tactics and began double-teaming Mitchell and Cox in the low post. The Yellow Jackets managed only three points over their next seven possessions as the Deacons regained control.
“We wanted to give them a different look at the end of the game,” Manning said. “Early, we didn’t want to double the posts because they have some great 3-point shooters. We didn’t want them to get open looks.
“At the end we doubled the ball, we had high hands and we took away some of their aggressiveness in post. And we didn’t give up any uncontested shots.”
Mitchell, a transfer from Maryland who had 12 points and seven rebounds against the Deacons last season, was called for a flagrant-one foul after catching Mitoglou on the jaw with an elbow on the free-throw line with 1:43 remaining. Wake Forest led 70-62 at the time.
Mitoglou, a 6-10 freshman from Greece, said he had alerted the officials to Mitchell’s overly aggressive play.
“He tried to box me out and I had noticed he did bad moves with his elbow,” Mitoglou. “I do everything I can to go around him and he tries to punch me. So the refs see that move and they call a foul.”
Mitoglou made one of two free throws, and Thomas missed two free throws on the extended possession. The Deacons suffered a stretch of six misses on seven attempts before making four of their final six.
“We don’t do that,” Gregory said of Mitchell’s elbow. “I didn’t see it, so I can’t comment one way or another. But that’s the first one, in something like that, that I’ve ever been a part of.
“And I’ve got to see it. I don’t want to say anything negative, one way or another. I’ve got to see what actually happened.”
What Miller-McIntyre saw happen was the Deacons come together to pry loose their first ACC victory of the season. And they did it against a team that has been a major nemesis the past two years, with three victories in three tries against Wake Forest.
Two of the Georgia Tech victories the past two seasons came at Joel Coliseum.
“It feels good getting Coach’s first ACC win,” Miller-McIntyre. “And also, us juniors that are here, it’s our first time beating Georgia Tech.”