Wake Forest staves off E. Tenn. St., 76-73

Howard's free throws rescue No. 2 seed at end

March 22, 2003|By George Diaz | George Diaz,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

TAMPA, Fla. - It was the usual spin on March Madness: desperation, perseverance and luck.

Second seed Wake Forest - expected to breeze by 15th seed East Tennessee State - needed a pair of Josh Howard free throws with 21.6 seconds remaining to secure a 76-73 victory yesterday in an East Regional NCAA tournament matchup.

"The past few weeks people have been telling us we're the greatest thing since Cheerios," Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser said. "We have to remember who we are. While its very heady to get a No. 2 seed, I didn't want our guys thinking we couldn't lose to East Tennessee State.

"I think pressure, if you will, becomes stressful. And I'm not sure we didn't play a little stressed out."

East Tennessee State (20-11) added to the strain by refusing to fade away despite trailing by eight points late in the game. As in the first game between Auburn and St. Joseph's, it was the little man who made the big difference.

Freshman guard Tim Smith scored eight consecutive points to tie the score at 72 with 28 seconds left before Howard's free throws and another free throw by Justin Gray gave the Demon Deacons (25-5) the margin of victory.

Smith missed a wild three-pointer from the baseline with one second remaining, marking a quick exit for a team returning to the NCAAs for the first time since 1991.

"We thought we could come out here and do something special," East Tennessee coach Ed DeChillis said. "We were just a basket away."

And so the Demon Deacons advance, hoping that some of that aforementioned luck comes along for the ride. The last time Wake Forest captured the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season title outright was in 1962, the year of the school's only Final Four appearance.

Much of the success this season is marked by the play of Howard, a national Player of the Year candidate. Although he struggled yesterday, scoring only 12 points (eight fewer than his average), Howard had help on offense.

Freshman center Eric Williams scored a season-high 20 points and Taron Downey added 17 for the Deacons, who will face Auburn tomorrow afternoon.

"Coach told me that there's going to be a time when I had to step up because the team was going to need me at some important in time," Williams said. "I think today was that point in time. I'm happy but that's the way I'm supposed to be playing."

It was a bittersweet ride for both coaches, friends from Western Pennsylvania who have spent time in each other's homes and socialized with their families. Prosser has spoken at a banquet for East Tennessee State, and DeChillis has come to Wake Forest to scout practice.

As he was watching the NCAA selection show last Sunday, Prosser recalls his elation at the No. 2 seed quickly tempered when he saw the team and friend he would face.

"I like Eddie," Prosser said. "But I love my kids more."

George Diaz is a reporter for the Orlando Sentinel, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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