RALEIGH, N.C. - Chris Paul and Luis Flores took different roads to yesterday's second-round NCAA tournament game at RBC Center, but Wake Forest's freshman point guard and his senior counterpart from Manhattan each wanted to wind up in the same destination.
Paul will go to Continental Airlines Arena for the Sweet 16 at the East Rutherford, N.J., Regional as a result of his performance against the Jaspers (25-6).
Paul scored 29 points, including seven of his team's last 11, to help the fourth-seeded Demon Deacons (21-9) survive a scare from the regional's No. 12 seed.
Wake Forest won, 84-80, but not before the team from the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference took the game into the final, frantic minute in which Paul found Trent Strickland for a wide-open dunk that sealed the victory with 10 seconds to go.
The play developed after Manhattan's Peter Mulligan, who spent his first two years at UMBC, nearly stole the ball from Paul and helped tie him up, only to see the possession arrow in favor of the Demon Deacons. There were 13.6 seconds left, and Wake Forest had only five seconds to shoot.
After a timeout, Paul took the inbounds pass and found Strickland.
"I saw that he was open," Paul said. "I probably took one extra blink because he was so wide-open."
With that blink, Manhattan's season was over. The Jaspers were paying so much attention to Paul, as they had for most of the game, that they neglected to see Strickland go from setting a screen on the baseline to moving toward the basket. Paul finished 10-for-14 from the field.
Two Manhattan players, point guard Kenny Minor and senior center David Holmes, flew at Paul in the corner. In an instant, which is all is seems ever to take with Paul, the ACC's Rookie of the Year whipped a pass to Strickland.
"We were so worried about Paul because he had such a great game," said Minor, a sophomore from Baltimore (Dunbar) who hit two big three-pointers to fuel Manhattan's comeback from a 48-35 deficit at halftime. "We had a mental lapse."
The Jaspers had fought all kinds of obstacles, everything from the pro-Wake Forest crowd in the heart of ACC country to foul troubles that sent Flores to the bench and the Demon Deacons to the line for their first one-and-one with 15:37 to go.
"It took one of the best teams in the country to end our season," said Manhattan coach Bobby Gonzalez. "We had them on the ropes, and we took them right to the wall. We faced a lot of adversity. I'm not saying we lost because of the officials, but we got into foul trouble and it affected the outcome of the game."
Said Flores, who finished with 20 points: "I don't think anything that they did was different than what I faced all year long. I've got to tip my hat to their team. At the end of the game, they were able to come up with the plays, and we were not able to come up with plays."
Mostly it was Paul, whose assist to Strickland was his sixth of the game to go along with eight rebounds, three steals and two blocked shots. Paul helped account for all but one of his team's final 11 points, with assists to Jamaal Levy and Strickland on the baskets (or free throws) he didn't score himself.
"I'm not sure if it was my best game ever," said Paul.
The victory enabled Wake Forest to advance to its first Sweet 16 since 1996 and set up a much-anticipated matchup between Paul and Jameer Nelson of Saint Joseph's. The defeat ended a career for Flores that began unhappily as a freshman at Rutgers.
"It's always hard [to lose], especially for us as seniors," Holmes said. "But it shows that we had fight in us. We worked hard to get back in the game. It came down to one last basket and we needed a stop. I have to tip my hat to Chris Paul. He made a heck of a play."
MANHATTAN - Flores 8-17 2-3 20, Wingate 1-4 0-0 3, Holmes 5-9 9-11 19, Mulligan 4-11 4-5 13, Benton 5-7 0-1 10, Minor 3-6 0-0 8, Ngarndi 0-1 0-0 0, Konovelchick 3-8 0-0 7. Totals 29-63 15-20 80. WAKE FOREST - Gray 2-9 0-3 6, Paul 10-14 8-9 29, Levy 5-11 2-2 12, E.Williams 1-3 2-2 4, Strickland 1-3 3-4 5, Downey 4-8 0-0 10, Danelius 3-4 3-4 12, Visser 3-5 0-0 6. Totals 29-57 18-24 84. Half: Wake Forest, 48-35. 3-point goals-Manhattan 7-20 (Minor 2-3, Flores 2-6, Wingate 1-2, Konovelchick 1-4, Mulligan 1-5), Wake Forest 8-20 (Danelius 3-4, Downey 2-4, Gray 2-8, Paul 1-1, Strickland 0-1, Levy 0-2). Fouled out-Danelius, E.Williams. Rebounds-Manhattan 32 (Holmes 8), Wake Forest 37 (Paul 8). Assists-Manhattan 15 (Wingate 4), Wake Forest 15 (Paul 6). Total fouls-Manhattan 23, Wake Forest 18. A-19,722.
Top performer: Wake Forest freshman Chris Paul had 29 points, eight rebounds and six assists against Manhattan.
Big surprise: Justin Gray, Wake Forest's leading scorer this season, was limited to six points on 2-for-9 shooting.
He said it: "Everybody says they have the advantage inside against us. But we still came out with the win." - Dwayne Jones of Saint Joseph's after the Hawks' victory over Texas Tech