March 14, 2003
By JENNA FRYER
AP Sports Writer
GREENSBORO, N.C. – Even if Josh Howard was having the worst game of his career, Wake Forest would go to him with the game on the line.
Howard struggled – but still scored 17 points – to lead the top-seeded Demon Deacons to a 69-61 victory over Florida State in the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament on Friday.
“You know, he doesn’t dress in a phone booth,” Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser said. “But in my opinion, he’s the Player of the Year in the country … and he’s still the unanimous vote on this team on who would take the last shot.
“While his numbers might be gaudy, he has carried this team all year.”
No. 9 Wake Forest is the top-seeded team in the tournament after winning its first outright ACC title in 41 years. But it couldn’t shake the ninth-seeded Seminoles for almost 30 minutes.
Then Howard, expected to win ACC Player of the Year honors next week, scored on consecutive baskets in a stretch of five straight Wake Forest conversions to give the Demon Deacons (24-4) control of the game.
He scored on an off-balance pump-fake in double coverage, then nailed a 12-foot jumper to give Wake Forest a 58-52 lead with 5:51 to play – the Deacons’ first comfortable margin.
Howard finished 7-of-15 from the floor – 0-for-3 from 3-point range – and went 3-for-6 at the line. He credited Florida State (14-15) for attacking the Deacons and disrupting his game.
“We’ve gained this status now and because of that, every team’s going to give us their `A Game, ‘ ” Howard said. “That’s what Florida State did today.”
With Howard struggling, Wake Forest’s youngsters picked up the slack.
Freshman Justin Gray had 15 points, sophomore Vytas Danelius added 14 and sophomore Jamaal Levy had 12 rebounds for Wake Forest, which will play North Carolina State or Georgia Tech next.
Gray, who missed a month of the season with a broken jaw, said it was unusual for Howard’s supporting cast to have to do so much.
“Most of the time Josh is going,” Gray said. “Today, obviously he didn’t have some shots go in. So once I come in, me and the other guys had to give them a lift.”
Florida State was outrebounded 43-22, which coach Leonard Hamilton thought was the difference.
“We did a very poor job on the boards,” Hamilton said. “I think that was the thing that hurt us the most. We did a good job of stopping the initial shot, but we did a poor job of keeping them off the glass.”
Wake Forest led 40-39 with 13:35 to play, but Richardson scored on a layup and Pickett hit a 3-pointer – celebrating the shot by jawing at television analyst Dick Vitale as he ran by him – to put the Seminoles up 44-42.
Florida State’s energy soon ran out.
Coming off a 72-61 victory over Clemson in Thursday night’s tournament opener, the Seminoles began to tire just as Wake Forest warmed up. The frantic back-and-forth pace had Florida State’s players looking haggard by the time Danelius hit a 3-pointer that tied it 50 with 9:16 to play.
Hamilton called a timeout to give the Seminoles a breather, but there was little stopping Wake Forest out of the break.
“When Wake Forest went into their small lineup, our fatigue really showed then,” Pickett said.
The Demon Deacons scored five baskets in a row, beginning with Danelius’ dunk, to give Wake Forest a 63-56 lead with 4:24 to play.
Pickett wouldn’t go away quietly, though, hitting a 3-pointer that cut it to 63-59 with 3:47 left.
After Levy scored on a bank shot for Wake, Pickett got the ball inside to Richardson, who drew a foul and hit both free throws. The Seminoles then got a steal, but Pickett couldn’t convert – he thought he was fouled as he went in for the layup – and Florida State had to foul on every Wake Forest possession from there.