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No. 18 Clemson Falls to No. 10 Wake Forest

March 8, 2009

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WINSTON-SALEM, North Carolina (AP) – While most of the attention in the Atlantic Coast Conference on Sunday was on the North Carolina-Duke rivalry, Wake Forest served notice it’s a contender for next week’s league tournament crown, too.

With James Johnson scoring 17 of his 21 points after halftime, the 10th-ranked Demon Deacons had their offense humming in a 96-88 comeback win over No. 18 Clemson on Sunday in the regular-season finale.

Johnson, taking charge of the offense with guard Jeff Teague in foul trouble, hit his first eight shots. He finished 10-for-14 from the field, while the Demon Deacons (24-5, 11-5) shot 60 percent in their fourth straight win to leapfrog past Duke and grab the No. 2 seed for the ACC tournament.

After starting 16-0 and earning the No. 1 ranking in the country, Wake Forest fell into a midseason slump. But now the athletic Demon Deacons enter the postseason riding a four-game winning streak.

“I told them before the game, ‘As long as you do what we tell you to do and you do it hard, we won’t lose,”‘ coach Dino Gaudio said. “And I believe that.”

Al-Farouq Aminu also scored 21 points and grabbed 10 rebounds for Wake Forest, which rallied from a 10-point first-half deficit to extend its home winning streak over Clemson to 17 games by running the Tigers ragged with fastbreak buckets.

“They like to press and we think it’s an insult that teams try to press us because of the guards we have,” said center Chas McFarland, who had 14 points and eight rebounds. “And everybody can handle the ball, just about. So we try to take advantage of what they’re trying to do, and a lot of our shots came at the rim.

Demontez Stitt scored a career-high 21 points, K.C. Rivers also scored 21 and Trevor Booker had 18 points and 10 rebounds for the Tigers (23-7, 9-7), who lost for the fifth time in nine games and will limp into the ACC tournament as the No. 5 seed.

“We’ve had a pretty good year,” coach Oliver Purnell said. “So you can choose to look at (losing) five of nine or whatever, or you can choose to look at the year and say were a pretty good basketball team in a great league. That’s what I think.”

Before leaving the hotel for the arena, Clemson knew it couldn’t secure a bye in the first round of the conference tournament. Florida State’s win over Virginia Tech on Sunday afternoon gave the Seminoles the No. 4 seed and knocked the Tigers into a matchup with last-place Georgia Tech in Atlanta on Thursday.

“We’re going to go back to practice and hopefully try to catch fire and get back to the championship,” Booker said.

It was early in the first half when North Carolina finished off Duke, giving the Demon Deacons an opening to earn the No. 2 seed in a tiebreaker over the Blue Devils by extending their home dominance over the Tigers.

While nothing like Clemson’s infamous 0-54 mark at North Carolina, the Tigers’ futility in Winston-Salem dates to 1990. Still, Clemson led 44-34 late in the first half.

After Wake Forest rallied to take a 71-66 lead, Rivers hit a 3 before Johnson went to work.

Johnson, who also had nine rebounds, answered with a 3 that ignited a 7-0 run, and a thunderous one-handed dunk with 4:10 left put WAKE ahead 83-71, ending Clemson’s chances of earning a split in the season series.

“JT was in foul trouble and he’s usually the aggressor for us,” Johnson said of Teague, who had 15 points in 27 minutes. “I didn’t want to lose and our seniors didn’t want to lose. So I was just playing as hard as I could for them and doing what was needed.”

Early, Clemson’s sophomore guard stole the spotlight.

Stitt, averaging 8.4 points coming in, scored 15 in the first 20 minutes. He hit a 3-pointer and one of his numerous driving layups put the Tigers ahead 44-34 with 1:19 left.

The Demon Deacons then closed the half on a 6-0 run, capped by Aminu’s fastbreak dunk at the buzzer.

Aminu hit seven of 10 shots coming off the bench. Coach Dino Gaudio started senior Harvey Hale in his final home game, and Wake Forest was motivated to end the home schedule on a positive note.

The confident Deacons would also like to prevent a North Carolina-Duke ACC final next Sunday, too.

“Everything we do is competitive,” Teague said. “Even when it comes to talking about who has the prettiest girlfriend and things like that. We just have a competitive group of guys.”