A program set to rise at last?
Jen Hoover is in her eighth season as the head coach at Wake Forest. In her previous seven years at the helm of the Demon Deacons, her squads have never finished better than ninth in the ACC and they have never appeared in the NCAA tournament. In fact, the Deacs haven’t been to the Big Dance since 1988.
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It’s still unclear if that streak will end this season, but Wake Forest certainly seems to finally be trending in the right direction.
After beating Duke and Georgia Tech in the past few days, the Deacs are 9-5 on the season and 2-1 in conference play. They have already doubled their ACC win total from a season ago and are just one victory away from tying their overall win total from last season.
Wake’s wins over Duke and Georgia Tech were surprising and improbable. While Duke isn’t at its best this season, the Demon Deacons hadn’t beaten the Blue Devils in Cameron Indoor Stadium since 1992. And while Nell Fortner is in the first year of rebuilding Georgia Tech, the Yellow Jackets have been very solid this year, sporting an 11-3 record and the No. 2 scoring defense in the nation, allowing just 47.6 points per-game.
Hoover’s side also owns wins over Florida, Dayton and Elon, and lost to then-ranked No. 24 Miami by just three points on the road.
So, what’s changed for Wake Forest? In looking at the Deacs’ last four wins – over Duke, Georgia Tech, Florida and Dayton – two trends stuck out. In each of those games, Wake Forest won the rebounding battle and shot very well from the charity stripe.
Over those four contests, Wake grabbed an average of 38.7 rebounds per-game and won the rebounding margin by an average of 8.5 boards. At the charity stripe, Wake attempted 54 shots over those four games and knocked down 43 of them for a 79.6 percent clip.
“We knew coming into the game that rebounding was one of our identities and we felt like we fell short at Miami in our first ACC game,” Hoover said after Wake’s win at Duke. “It was an emphasis coming in… At halftime, I told them that if we can take care of the rebounding and take care of the ball that we’d come out on top. Give our kids all the credit because I thought in the second half that we really cleaned the glass and limited their second chance opportunities. We also created some for ourselves which was key.”
Wake is fourth in the ACC and 26th in the nation in rebounding, grabbing 43.21 boards per-game this season. They are shooting 71 percent from the free throw line over the course of the season.
Against Miami, Wake lost the rebounding battle to a front-court led by Beatrice Mompremier by six and were also hurt by 14 turnovers.
“I felt that Miami and us looked rusty but we felt that we had a chance in that game. We took the lead several times but it was a game of runs,” Hoover said. “Defense and rebounding are what can help control that, especially for a team like us.”
What also stands out for Wake over their last four wins is the stellar play of three players: Gina Conti, Ivana Raca and Alex Sharp. Over those four contests, here’s what each averaged per-game.
Conti: 14.5 points, three rebounds, 5.7 assists
Raca: 17 points, seven rebounds, 1.7 assists
Sharp: 12.2 points, nine rebounds, 1.7 assists
To get about 43 points, 19 rebounds and 10 assists per-game out of three players is very good. In comparison to an ACC team who has been very good this season and over the past decade – Louisville – Dana Evans, Jazmine Jones and Elizabeth Balogun are averaging a combined 42.1 points, 12.4 rebounds and 9.2 assists per-game.
If Conti, Raca and Sharp can remain consistent with their recent play, Wake Forest might have three players who can play with anyone in the ACC.
“We’ve been able to play off each other and learn how each other plays and I think that we have a good team dynamic, on and off the court,” Conti told High Post Hoops at the ACC women’s basketball media day in October. “Everybody has their own thing and when we bring it together it’s one big good impact.”
What might be more surprising about Wake’s recent success is that they aren’t really doing it with homegrown talent. There are just two players on the Deacs’ roster who hail from the basketball-crazed state of North Carolina in Fayetteville’s Alexandria Scruggs and Ona Udoh. Scruggs has played well as a freshman, averaging 6.5 points and 3.8 rebounds in 22 minutes per-game. Udoh has averaged 4.8 points and 4.8 rebounds in 19 minutes per-game. She did not play against Georgia Tech or Duke.
Conti hails from Grove City, Ohio, while Sharp and Raca were international finds for Hoover. Sharp is from Melbourne, Australia and Raca is from Belgrade, Serbia.
While things are clicking now for Wake Forest, the jury is out on if it can last through ACC play. This team has had a few hiccups this season too, as a 12-point loss to Charlotte and a seven-point loss to ETSU appear to be especially egregious.
Despite those missteps in non-conference play, Hoover is confident that this Wake Forest team knows who it is now and that they’ve figured out a formula for competing.
“We felt like we finished our non-conference schedule on a high with what we were able to do in back-to-back games against Dayton and Florida. It gave this team a lot of confidence,” Hoover said. “We went through a lot of ups-and-downs in the non-conference in trying to figure out who we were, how to play with each other, who was going to score and rebound. I felt that we came into ACC play knowing that.”
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