PITTSBURGH (AP) — The math is pretty simple to Wake Forest coach Danny Manning. If the Demon Deacons are going to find a way to claw back to respectability in the Atlantic Coast Conference they need to defend their home court and win around half their road games, a task Manning knows is far easier said than done in one of the toughest leagues in the country.
Against a Pittsburgh team facing a very similar path on Saturday, Wake Forest took a small step in the right direction.
Ismael Massoud scored 14 points off the bench, Torry Johnson added 12 and the Demon Deacons rallied from an early 16-point deficit to edge the Panthers 69-65.
“Any time you can get a road win, it’s good, it’s special,” Manning said.
Wake Forest (8-5, 1-2 ACC) came in 2-17 away from Memorial Coliseum in conference play since the start of the 2017-18 season. The Demon Deacons were down 22-6 before the game was 10 minutes old but clawed back to draw in the opening moments of the second half then held Pitt (10-4, 1-2) scoreless over the last 3:07 after Panther guard Trey McGowens hit a reverse layup to pull Pitt within 66-65.
The Panthers missed their last five shots, including a potential go-ahead 3-pointer by McGowens with 27 seconds left. Xavier Johnson's heave from the elbow with 7 seconds remaining clanked out of harm's way and McGowens' potential game-tying layup with less than a second to go was blocked by Wake Forest's Olivier Sarr. Brandon Childress drained two free throws for the Demon Deacons for the final margin.
“Disappointed in our last few possessions,” Pitt coach Jeff Capel said. “We didn't get the shots that we really wanted. That's on all of us and we have to do a better job in those situations knowing where we want to get the shots from and making sure we execute to do that.”
Ryan Murphy led Pitt with 18 points and four assists. McGowens finished with 12 points and Johnson and Justin Champagnie added 11 points each for the Panthers but Pitt saw a three-game winning streak come to a crashing halt during a back-and-forth second half in a game that saw 11 ties and 10 lead changes.
“I thought we panicked and in some ways,” Capel said. “It comes from a good place at times, ‘I have to make a play.’ It can never be that. ... It’s where we have to grow up.”
Wake Forest went up 59-51 on a pair of free throws by Massoud with 7:33 to go before the Panthers responded. An Eric Hamilton layup capped an 8-0 run that tied it at 59 but the Demon Deacons hung tough. A 3-pointer by Andrien White gave the Demon Deacons a 66-63 edge and Wake Forest's defense made sure it was enough.
On an afternoon when Childress was limited to eight points — eight below his average — the Demon Deacons spread it around. Only one player — Chaundee Brown — took more than eight shots. Massoud drilled 3 of 6 3-pointers and Johnson made all six of his free throws to keep the Panthers off balance.
Manning praised Childress' patience in not forcing it in the face of steady pressure from the Panthers and getting his teammates involved.
“There are going to be nights when Brandon is not going to get up a lot of shots,” Manning said. “You've got to put yourself in situations where you force help (defense) and trust your teammates. He did a tremendous job of that tonight."
Wake Forest: In a pivotal season for Manning, the Demon Deacons gave their season a needed jolt after a wildly uneven early slate that included losses to Boston College and Charlotte and a win over Xavier.
Pitt: The Panthers are hoping to take another step forward in Capel's second year. How far they climb after winning three conference games a year ago will depend largely on their ability to win the rock fights with teams in a similar position. Losing at home to the Demon Deacons could haunt them come March.
HOT AND COLD
The Panthers raced to a 22-6 lead but their offense slowed to a crawl late in the first half with Johnson and McGowens both in foul trouble. Pitt missed 14 of its last 17 shots to end the half, allowing Wake Forest to draw within 30-27 at the break.
“There are a lot of things required to be good and we have to do them all the time,” Capel said. “We can’t do them for a 10-minute period and think we can take a break and then turn it back on again.”
Wake Forest: Hosts Florida State on Wednesday. The Demon Deacons are 1-4 against the Seminoles under Manning.
Pitt: Visits North Carolina on Wednesday. The Panthers have dropped six straight to the Tar Heels.