WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — For whatever reason, men’s basketball games between Pitt and Wake Forest have typically been close. Entering Wednesday night’s ACC clash, eight of the last nine meetings between the Deacs and Panthers had been decided by nine points or less. And all four meetings at Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum had been decided by four points or less.
But that’s all in the past. This season, Wake Forest and Pitt are not equals on the hardwood.
The Demon Deacons proved that Wednesday night, leading wire-to-wire in an absolute rout of the Panthers. Wake was on the right side of the scoreboard when the clock hit triple-zeros, capturing a 91-75 home victory.
Wake is now one of four teams in the ACC with eight or more wins. In just the second season at the helm for Steve Forbes, the Deacs seem to be on track to be competitive in the ACC tournament and appear in the NCAA tournament. Meanwhile, the Panthers are still floundering near the bottom of the standings in Year Four for Jeff Capel.
The Deacs built themselves into a winner quickly thanks to the transfer portal. Jake LaRavia came from Indiana State, Alondes Williams was at Triton College, Daivien Williamson came from East Tennessee State, and Khadim Sy was previously at Ole Miss. Against Pitt, the foursome combined for 54 points, 20 rebounds and 14 assists.
Pitt has six transfers on its roster too, but has not experienced the same success, cohesiveness or consistency as Wake Forest.
“They did an outstanding job in the portal. They got four guys that have been difference makers for them,” Capel said of Wake. “And so, it’s encouraging. You know, college athletics – especially college basketball – is very different right now. We have to adjust to it. But there is an opportunity to improve your team fast. Wake is a great example of that.”
Wake clearly better
In the ACC, there is a clear hierarchy of haves and have-nots in men’s basketball. Changing it is difficult. But Wake is attempting to become the former, while Pitt is firmly still planted in the latter. The differences between the two squads were apparent on Wednesday evening.
Wake shot 54.9% from the floor and 51.7% from behind the arc. Wake’s 15 made three-pointers was the second-most it has made in a single game all season and the most the Deacs have sank against any Power 5 opponent.
Pitt and Wake each had 13 turnovers, but the Deacs scored 18 points off the Panthers’ turnovers. Pitt, meanwhile, scored just seven points off Wake’s turnovers.
What really hurt Pitt was its poor shooting early on. The Panthers shot 8 of 27 in the first half, while Wake strung together run after run to take a 22-point lead.
Wake Forest also outscored Pitt in second chance points (16-10), bench points (16-8) and fast break points (15-6).
Odukale plays well
Pitt had a team meeting on Tuesday, Femi Odukale said, and in that meeting his teammates called him out.
“We were talking and stuff. And people said I was struggling to help the team,” Odukale said.
“I knew that myself, but hearing it from others, it sounded like I was letting them down. So, I didn’t want to let anyone down from now on.
“I’m not going to let nobody down no more.”
Odukale had one of his best performances of the season Wednesday, scoring 23 points on 10 of 14 shooting. He started the game off shooting 4 of 4 from the floor, and he had zero turnovers in his first 25 minutes of play. Odukale finished with two turnovers in a total of 35 minutes – a team high – and also had two steals, two assists and three rebounds.
“I thought Femi Odukale was really, really good. Made some tough shots,” Forbes said.
Unfortunately for Pitt, not every Panther played as well as Odukale. John Hugley finished with 17 points and 12 boards, but only scored two points in the first half. Jamarius Burton tallied 10 points, but needed 11 shots to get there.
Outside of Odukale and those two, the rest of the Panthers shot just 34.7% from the floor.
“We got to play with more energy,” Odukale said. “We’re not playing with a sense of urgency. We just got to play with a little more fight – not just at the end.”
After missing the loss at Boston College on Sunday due to health and safety protocols, Jeff Capel – and his brother, assistant Jason Capel – were back on the sidelines for Pitt. The Capels joined the team Wednesday morning in Winston-Salem.
“It was pretty hard,” Odukale said of Capel’s absence. “Usually, we see him every day and his energy brings a lot to the practices.”
Still, even with Capel’s presence, Pitt didn’t play much better.
After shooting 35.1% from the floor and turning the ball over 13 times against Boston College, Pitt shot 48.3% on field goals and had 13 turnovers against Wake.
Pitt’s offense played well enough in the second half to help the Panthers finish with 75 points – its second most of the season – but Pitt gave up 91 on the other end, the most they’ve surrendered to an opponent in Capel’s tenure. Wake’s shooting percentage – 54.9% – was also the highest mark Pitt has allowed of an opponent this season.
“I try to keep it one game at a time and focus on that game in front of us. All of my attention now will be on Virginia Tech,” Capel said. “For the most part this season, our team has responded when we haven’t played well. We certainly haven’t in the past couple of games.”
Unsafe situation not far from game
Despite Wake Forest’s recent run of success – the Deacs had won six of their last eight games entering Wednesday – its game against Pitt was not a sellout. Far from it, in fact, as an announced crowd of just 5,328 fans were in the coliseum, which has a capacity of 14,665. Part of that can be blamed on COVID. And part of it can also probably be blamed on Wake playing an opponent that isn’t very good.
But in addition to those factors, just two miles north of Wake’s basketball arena, an uncontrolled fire at a fertilizer plant in Winston-Salem continued to burn. The blaze broke out Monday night at the plant where an estimated 500 tons of combustible ammonium nitrate were housed. Were that to explode, Winston-Salem fire chief Trey Mayo told reporters, it could be “be one of the worst explosions in U.S. history.” Since Monday evening, 2,500 homes in the area were evacuated, and Wake Forest canceled classes Tuesday through Friday.
But still, basketball played on. And Wake Forest provided complimentary tickets to folks who had to evacuate their homes.
“I want to thank everybody who came to the game tonight. I know it’s been a rough couple of days here in Winston-Salem,” Forbes said. “Credit to our fans and students who came out tonight. Your presence was felt.”