CLEVELAND, March 17 -- Thursday night was supposed to mark the triumphant return for Wake Forest's point guard and the easiest game in a four-step journey to the Final Four.
But it turned out to be an anxiety-filled evening for the second-seeded Demon Deacons, whose potent offense sputtered in the first half against Chattanooga. Wake Forest was forced to rally from an eight-point first-half deficit to beat the Mocs, 70-54, in the first round of the Albuquerque Region at Wolstein Center.
Wake Forest advanced to play in the second round on Saturday against West Virginia, which defeated Creighton. Coach Skip Prosser said the Wake Forest team that competed in the first half Thursday was not the one that he had seen in practice the previous three days.
"That's a concern," he said.
Wake Forest (27-5) struggled even with guard Chris Paul back in the lineup after a one-game suspension for hitting a player in his final regular season game. Paul scored 13 of his game-high 20 points in the second half, as his team finally seized control with a 17-5 run.
In the first half, though, the Demon Deacons, the nation's fourth-highest scoring team, were on a point-per-minute pace 15 minutes into the game. They had six turnovers in the game's first eight minutes. And they trailed by three at halftime against a team that collected three of its victories against the likes of Toccoa Falls, Brevard and Virginia-Wise.
Wake Forest's loss to North Carolina State in the ACC tournament without Paul probably cost the Demon Deacons a top seed in the NCAA tournament and a chance to play the opening two rounds in Charlotte.
Instead they drew Chattanooga (20-11), a 15th seed that earned an automatic berth by winning the Southern Conference tournament title. The last time Chattanooga appeared in the NCAA tournament was 1997, when it reached the round of 16 by beating Georgia and Illinois. The Mocs played most of Thursday night's game like they felt they could advance again.
It was an awful first half for Wake Forest, which could have been down more than three points at halftime had the Mocs made the handful of three-pointers that rimmed out.
Even with Paul's three-pointer to close the first half, Wake Forest made just 2 of 15 shots from beyond the three-point line. Prosser said he felt his team, which usually comprises good three-point shooters, rushed shots in the first half.
"Those are the kind of things that happen," Prosser said, "when upsets occur."
Prosser repeatedly reminded Paul to play confidently. Paul told his coach that he had some tournament jitters early on. Teammates, meantime, welcomed their standout guard back, even though it took him some time to warm up.
"It really hurt that he wasn't there in the ACC tournament," center Eric Williams said. "When he came back, it's like one big happy family."
That could be true, except that the Demon Deacons made 28 percent of their shots and turned over the ball 10 times in the first half. They were outrebounded and generally outplayed by the lanky, though limited, players from Chattanooga.
"We have to figure out whether the first half was Chattanooga or us," said Prosser, whose team earned a school-record 27th victory. "We can't afford a performance like that as the tournament wears on."
WEST VIRGINIA 63, CREIGHTON 61: Tyrone Sally's dunk with 2.4 seconds left helped seventh-seeded West Virginia (22-10) advance. With 1.7 seconds remaining, Creighton guard Nate Funk caught an inbounds pass, pump-faked and attempted what would have been a game-winning three-pointer, but it was long.
"I think I might have had cement under my shoes, I didn't jump," said Mike Gansey, defending Funk on the final play. "Luckily I did not foul him and it did not go in. . . . It's the best day of my life."
Both teams shot better than 50 percent in the first half. Tenth-seeded Creighton (23-11) jumped out to a 10-0 lead and West Virginia surged back to take a 31-19 advantage, but the game wasn't decided until the final second.