The pressure is off Wake Forest. The Deacons survived the first round of the Atlantic Coast Conference basketball tournament yesterday for only the second time in the last eight years.
ALL-ACC guard Frank Johnson made sure of it with a career-high 32 points in an 80-71 victory in the opening game at Capital Centre. But the Deacons were very tight. So tight that they missed eight of 18 layups in the first half, yet led by a point at intermission. And the Deacons were in early foul trouble.
Wake was able to gain today's 9:30 p.m. semifinal against North Carolina because of a bench that produced 20 points and 15 rebounds and the Deacons' ability to hold Clemson's Larry Nance to one point in a 6 1/2-minute segment that decided this game. Nance finished with 27.
The tenseness was obvious to Wake center Jim Johnstone, who was on the bench in four trouble watching his teammates get open for layups against Clemson's zone in the first half, only to miss or commit turnovers.
Coach Carl Tacy said, "The most pressure of all in the tournament is the opening game." So, when the easy shots weren't dropping, Tacy had simple advice for his team: "Just keep hammering away and look for the same shots."
Clemson adjusted by tightening its zone closer to the basket. That left the top of the key open for Johnson, a fifth-year senior who calls the area from the foul line to the top of the key "my can't-miss zone." He scored 21 points in the second half, including 15 of 19 Wake points in one stretch. The last gave the 11th-ranked Deacons (22-5) a 60-60 tie with 7:20 to play.
Nance made a free throw for a 61-60 Clemson lead, but then Wake's 1-3-1 defense provided so much double coverage on him that the tigers were forced to look away from the 6-foot-10 senior forward.Instead, they took jump shots, making only one of six, and also committed three turn overs. By then, Wake had the game in hand, 72-65, with 58 seconds remaining.