Wake Forest sophomore shooting guard Justin Gray had twisted an ankle, bruised an elbow and missed many shots in the first half against Florida State on Wednesday. And, after committing his fourth foul with 12:40 left in the contest and the Seminoles in control, Gray's frustration turned into tears as he sat on the Demon Deacons' bench.
But what Gray did when it counted reaffirmed his rising status in the guard-rich Atlantic Coast Conference. His career-high 31 points, punctuated by two three-point baskets in overtime, carried the Demon Deacons to a 90-87 comeback victory, their fifth straight, giving Wake (18-6, 8-5) a firm grip on third place in the ACC standings.
Freshman point guard Chris Paul has attracted attention all season in Winston-Salem, and with good reason. He'll probably finish second to Duke forward Luol Deng as the NCAA Freshman of the Year.
Additional buzz has surrounded the up-and-down-and-up year of Wake sophomore center Eric Williams and the injury-riddled season of junior forward Vytas Danelius, a preseason all-conference, first-team pick whose name will not get near that list next month.
All the while, the 6-foot-2 Gray has been there, making big shots, converting key free throws and becoming one of Wake's indispensable parts. He leads the Demon Deacons in scoring with 16.8 points a game, tying him with Duke sophomore guard J.J. Redick for third place in the league. In ACC games, Gray is averaging 18.8 points.
"[Gray] is still only a sophomore and he's still got to learn a lot, but he's come so far in terms of academics and every aspect of playing basketball," Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser said. "He gets down on himself when he misses a few shots. He has a tendency to foul when he's frustrated. But he's gotten better at worrying about the next play. He does have courage."
Gray showed that a year ago. After breaking his jaw in a 19-point loss at Duke on Jan. 12, 2003, Gray missed eight games, returned to face the Blue Devils in a rematch at Joel Memorial Coliseum and scored 18 points while wearing a protective mask. That inspired the Demon Deacons to a 94-80 victory in double-overtime and propelled Wake toward its first regular-season league title in 41 years.
Paul got most of the ink for having a brilliant second half in last month's come-from-behind, 93-85 victory over Maryland. But without Gray, Wake might not have won. The Terps took a surprising 53-43 lead at halftime, and it was Gray who kept the Demon Deacons within striking distance. He scored 18 first-half points and made all six of his free throws.
After his poor start on Wednesday, which also coincided with Wake trailing Florida State by 15 points with 11:50 left, Gray said, "I was so frustrated, I about punted the ball."
Tomorrow, Gray and the Deacons will try to sweep their first regular-season series from Maryland since 1998.
Empty seats at Comcast
Something has happened to the Maryland home crowd in recent weeks, and Terps coach Gary Williams is not happy about it. Starting with the Feb. 1 loss to N.C. State, before which Williams addressed the crowd by asking that it refrain from yelling obscenities, notable gaps of empty seats have shown up in the student section.
There were glaring clusters of no-shows at Tuesday's 70-49 victory over Clemson. Williams stared into the stands in disgust upon his pre-game entrance at Comcast Center, and he was still steamed after the game.
Are the fans reacting to Maryland's troubling 4-7 stretch run? Or are they staging a boycott, sparked by the bad publicity generated by those few hundred youngsters who pelted Duke with obscene jeers last month? Williams doesn't care.
"I thought our crowd was loud, those that were there. A lot of people were cheering by their radios and televisions, I guess," he said. "We have 10 years as good as any team in the country except maybe Duke. We've earned the right to have the crowd here. We won a national championship.
"This is when we need the students. We don't need empty seats. Everybody can cheer when we're rated No. 3 in the country. The real fans are those people who were going nuts two hours before the game at Duke [against Maryland] after they had lost two in a row. You don't judge your opponent. You come to root for our team."
Florida State and Clemson remain the only ACC teams who have yet to win a league game on the road, and Florida State's second-half collapse against Wake Forest could cost the Seminoles dearly. They have lost 23 straight ACC road games, and are headed for a 6-10 conference finish that could keep Florida State out of its first NCAA tournament since 1998. ... Virginia has roared back to life with three victories in its past four games, each courtesy of a dramatic three-point basket by senior guard Todd Billet. His three with 13 seconds left lifted the Cavaliers to a 74-72 victory over visiting North Carolina on Tuesday. ... By beating Maryland on Sunday, Duke avoided its first three-game losing streak since 1996.