WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – Wake Forest seemed headed for another blowout against No. 4 Duke. The Demon Deacons fell behind by more than 20 points and the Blue Devils were scoring seemingly at will.
Then coach Jeff Bzdelik's team figured out how to put a few defensive stops together — and that almost resulted in one of the most memorable comebacks in school history.
The Demon Deacons' 79-71 loss to Duke on Tuesday night — a game they trailed by 23 with 9½ minutes left — showed them that they're not that far from turning their program back around.
"We just fought," forward Travis McKie said. "You see one shot go in, you just start believing. ... If we lock down defensively and rebound, we can compete with anybody."
Nikita Mescheriakov and Tony Chennault both had 18 points for the Demon Deacons (13-16, 4-11 Atlantic Coast Conference), who have lost two of three and eight of 10 with the only wins in that stretch coming against the only two teams — Boston College and Georgia Tech — they are ahead of in the league standings.
Still, they couldn't help but come away from this loss feeling positive about the future of the program.
"It's not about moral victories," Bzdelik said. "It's just that they fought all the way."
McKie scored 14 points, C.J. Harris had 11 and Carson Desrosiers finished with 10 for Wake Forest, which trailed 65-42 with under 10 minutes to play before its huge run made it a game again.
McKie's jumper with just under 5 minutes left made it 67-61 — the first time since midway through the first half that Wake Forest was that close.
The Demon Deacons turned to their defense during the 19-2 run that cut the deficit to six points — and set up two good chances to get even closer. The Blue Devils went more than 5 minutes between field goals.
"We just needed to get down and defend, get some stops so we could get out and go," Bzdelik said. "When the light went on and we got some stops, we got ourselves going."
The Demon Deacons had the ball down 72-66 with less than 2 minutes left, but Chennault missed a 3-pointer, Duke milked the clock and Miles Plumlee chased down the critical offensive rebound of Tyler Thornton's missed jumper with just over 1 minute left. Seth Curry hit two free throws with 48.9 seconds left to make it 74-66.
The last chance came when Curry's miss of the front end of a 1-and-1 left Duke's lead at 74-68 with 35.8 seconds left. Chennault missed another 3 and Kelly added two free throws with 25.8 seconds to play.
"I thought I was going to make it, and by the time I (shot) it, it felt kind of short (and) my legs kind of died on me because I played a lot in the second half," Chennault said. "It was a good shot, just a tough game."
Ryan Kelly scored a career-high 23 points — putting up 20 against the Demon Deacons for the third straight time — to lead the Blue Devils (26-4, 13-2) to their seventh straight win and fifth in a row in the cross-state series. Duke became the third team in school history to finish 8-0 in conference road games.
"Our defensive intensity was lacking there for a little stretch. That's something we can't have happen," Kelly said. "But to pull out a victory against a team that had been playing well at home, and be 8-0 (in league road games), is a huge accomplishment."
Kelly, a 6-foot-11 Raleigh native, has been a particularly tough matchup for the Demon Deacons ever since he established himself in Duke's rotation as a sophomore last season. His previous career-high of 21 points came in a 91-73 win against them last month at Cameron Indoor Stadium, and twice in this one he made baskets that gave Duke its largest lead at 23 points — including a 3-pointer with 11½ minutes left that made it 63-40.
"I think he's been playing pretty well lately, and he just needed to take it up a notch," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "And he did."