Wake Forest's Dave Odom did the standard post-game drill for any coach who has to deal with Saint Louis, the little team that could.
"Without fear of argument from our team," said Odom, "Saint Louis was the best defensive team we've played this year."
That's fine, Dave, but the Billikens also had some awfully nice things to say about the iron curtain thrown up by Tim Duncan and the rest of your guys yesterday, when Wake Forest held Saint Louis scoreless for five minutes late in the game and pulled away for a 64-59 victory in the second round of the NCAA tournament before 12,816 at the Baltimore Arena.
The Atlantic Coast Conference champions moved on to the East Regional in East Rutherford, N.J., on Friday, where Duncan will run into someone his own size, Oklahoma State's Bryant Reeves. It will be a considerably different challenge, but the Demon Deacons, who stretched their winning streak to 12, have been able to handle anything thrown their way lately.
NTC Wake Forest (26-5), the East's top seed, fretted about the quickness and resourcefulness of Saint Louis' three-guard lineup and how dangerous Erwin Claggett, H Waldman and Scott Highmark are on the perimeter, but the Billikens had bigger worries, namely Duncan.
Ninth-seeded Saint Louis (23-8) survives on its three-point shooting, and it disappeared against Wake Forest. The Billikens launched 39 threes, and Loyola Marymount under Paul Westhead is the only team ever to take as many in tournament history. Unfortunately for the Billikens, only nine were good, and their second-half total was a dismal 4-for-25.
"When you have to rely on a jump shot every single possession of the game, it's hard to win," said Highmark, whose 22 points kept Saint Louis in the game. "We absolutely could not get anything inside 15 feet because of Duncan, because he's always standing there, being the intimidator. He was the difference the whole ballgame."
Duncan was crucial at the offensive end, where he had a game-high 25 points and his teammates -- the cold-weakened Randolph Childress included -- didn't hit a shot outside 10 feet in the last 17 minutes, partly because they were under orders to pound the ball inside to the 6-foot-10 sophomore. Defensively, he gave the Demon Deacons a luxury few Saint Louis opponents had this year.
When Wake Forest played man defense, Saint Louis spread the floor, pulled Duncan away from the basket and kept shooting off screens set by Jeff Harris and David Robinson. Demon Deacons forward Ricky Peral was always a step behind Highmark, and when Robinson put back a miss at the end of the half, it was 33-33.
Exit man defense. Enter zone.
"I'm not a zone kind of guy," Odom said. "But, fortunately, I've got a good coaching staff, and they kept telling me, 'Stay zone, stay zone.' I needed reaffirmation. Against Saint Louis, the kids have to do everything contrary to what they've been told before. When the ball goes inside, you flex out."
That's because it was being thrown right back out to the wayward three-point shooters, a wise choice for the Billikens considering Duncan's long arms and court sense.
Wake Forest, which began both halves with 9-2 spurts that Saint Louis made up in no time, headed into the last eight minutes with a 53-49 lead, but it shrunk to one on a three-pointer by Claggett. After a miss by Childress, Robinson had an open 15-footer on the left baseline for the lead, but no shot is safe with Duncan looming, and Robinson threw up an air ball.
For a telltale five minutes, Duncan was the only player who scored.
Immediately after Robinson's air ball, Duncan posted up on the right side for a 55-52 cushion. Three possessions later, he made a nice catch and finish in traffic that pushed the lead to five points, then followed with an end-to-end sequence that spelled the end for Saint Louis, an at-large selection from the Great Midwest Conference.
Waldman passed through the zone to an open Robinson under the basket with 3:18 to go, but Duncan swooped in for a clean block. Seventeen seconds later, Duncan took a pass from Travis Banks and dunked, and that 59-52 spread was too much for Charlie Spoonhour's overmatched Billikens.
"If you try to guard Childress outside, then they just lob inside to Duncan," Highmark said. "Those two guys are hard to match up with, and I don't think we're the only team that can't match up with them."
It's a lesson that the ACC learned, and the rest of the nation could pick up in the next two weekends.