Demon Deacons survive scare
EDDIE PELLS, AP Sports Writer
TAMPA, Fla. -- Too exhausted to talk, let alone walk, Tim Smith was motionless, curled on his side atop the trainer's table in the locker room.
The relentless point guard and East Tennessee State nearly struck a big blow for the little guys Friday in the NCAA tournament. In the end, they came up short, in a spirited 76-73 loss to Josh Howard and bigger, stronger Wake Forest.
Howard, the Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year, made two key free throws and finished with 12 points and 13 rebounds to help the second-seeded Demon Deacons overcome Smith and tenacious 15th-seeded ETSU.
Wake Forest (25-5) will play Auburn, a 65-63 overtime winner over Saint Joseph's, in the second round of the East Regional on Sunday.
The Buccaneers (20-11) -- only the second-best Bucs here in Tampa -- will go home with a loss in their first tournament appearance in 11 years, but the consolation that they, not Wake Forest, were the real show.
With his 22-point performance and frenetic floor game, Smith got most of the credit for ETSU's scintillating effort.
Smith played the entire 40 minutes and made things happen the whole time. During an unbelievable 65-second stretch late in the game, he almost single-handedly took the Bucs to the second round.
The 5-foot-9 freshman made a 3-pointer and a pair of free throws to cut a 72-64 deficit to three with 47 seconds left. On the ensuing inbounds pass, he practically dove in front of a Wake Forest player for the steal, then after his teammates rebounded two misses, he hit a 3-pointer from the left side to tie the game.
After Howard made two free throws with 21 seconds to go, ETSU's Zakee Wadood (20 points, 14 rebounds) had a chance to tie it. But Wake Forest called timeout to ice him, and Wadood missed the second of two free throws.
Justin Gray made one of two free throws for a 75-73 lead with 10.9 seconds left, then Smith drove to the left corner and launched a 3-pointer that could have won it. It found nothing but air.
Thus, a great game ended and the Bucs failed to become just the fifth No. 15 seed to pull a first-round upset since the field was expanded in 1985.
When it was over, Smith was vomiting, unable to move, past the point of exhaustion. He declined interviews. A school spokesman said he got hit in the head during the game, and was woozy because of it.
Freshman center Eric Williams led the Demon Deacons with 20 points -- 17 in the first half. He fouled out with 3:18 remaining and left the game to Howard, Gray and Taron Downey, all of whom were clutch down the stretch.
Downey, who scored 17 points, hit a pair of 3-pointers to put the Demon Deacons ahead 72-64 after Smith triggered a 7-0 run that tied it at 64 with 4:11 left. A 31 percent 3-point shooter this season, Downey went 5-for-8.
Still, nobody outdid Smith -- an annoying, persistent pest who was as fun to watch as he was difficult to defend. Ceaselessly pounding that dribble, driving the lane and generally driving the Deacons crazy, he played all 40 minutes for the fourth straight game. He shot only 9-for-23 and had three assists with five turnovers, but while his stat line might not have looked impressive, his style of play sure did.
Smith kept the Demon Deacons guessing and helped DeChellis win the Xs and Os matchup against his good friend, Prosser.
In the end, however, ETSU of the Southern Conference couldn't get past Wake, which won the ACC regular-season title outright for the first time since 1962. In fact, the Bucs tied the game three times -- including after Smith's late flurry -- but not once did they take the lead.