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CLEMSON – Clemson pulled within a point with less than five minutes remaining, and the day finally became everything everyone wearing orange hoped it would be.
The Tigers were forcing turnovers with their full-court press. Trevor Booker was blocking shots. Demontez Stitt was slicing through Wake Forest's defense, and Terrence Oglesby was draining 3-pointers.
And the standing-room-only crowd at Littlejohn Coliseum was ear-splittingly loud.
"That's the loudest I've ever heard any building in my life," Oglesby said. "It was deafening."
From there, however, No. 10 Clemson ended the game with a whimper as No. 2 Wake Forest snatched control and left with a 78-68 victory.
The Tigers, who suffered their first loss of the season, walked away ruing the notion that they never really played well enough to match the game's monumental hype.
"I think we have a good team," said Tigers coach Oliver Purnell. "And we didn't play good."
Wake Forest (16-0, 3-0 ACC) undoubtedly had plenty to do with Clemson's demise. The Demon Deacons' splendid mix of athleticism and height might not have been vanquished even had the Tigers played their best game.
But Clemson (16-1, 2-1) didn't feel like it delivered anything approaching optimum performance.
"We left a lot of stuff on the table that we didn't do," Purnell said. "We didn't stick to our plan. You don't stick to your plan against an excellent team, you're going to get beat."
A lot of things went wrong for the Tigers on both ends of the floor. The most glaring deficiency was an inability to feed the ball to their star.
Booker mustered nine points and missed six of nine shots from the floor, and no one else could find the basket on the shots Booker wasn't getting.
Clemson attempted 77 of them and made just 26 for a percentage (33.8) that was by far a low on the season.
The Tigers missed 18 of 23 shots from 3-point range. They snared 21 offensive rebounds but, perhaps flustered by the Deacons' size, couldn't cash in while missing a galling number of point-blank shots.
Add in nine missed free throws on 20 tries and repeated defensive breakdowns in transition, and it wasn't what Clemson had in mind entering the marquee matchup of the weekend in college basketball.
"We're a much better team than what we showed tonight," Stitt said.
Clemson doesn't have to wait long to prove that theory; next up is Wednesday's visit to No. 5 North Carolina.
Said Purnell: "We're going to play good teams. And guess what? We've got another one coming up next."
Wake Forest broke open a close game early in the second half, pushing a five-point halftime lead to 14 and threatening to run Clemson out of the building.
Every time the Tigers pieced something together on offense, Wake Forest would answer on the other end to maintain control.
There wasn't much hope for Clemson with less than 10 minutes remaining, after L.D. Williams hit an open 3-pointer to put the Deacons up 58-44. Clemson's players were bickering amongst themselves because of offensive malfunctions, and Booker and Raymond Sykes missed the front end of one-and-one opportunities on back-to-back possessions.
But then the Tigers discovered some magic. Stitt started driving to the lane and scoring, freeing up Oglesby for 3-pointers. Wake Forest finally began succumbing to the full-court pressure that had brought so many of Clemson's previous foes to their knees.
With five minutes left, Stitt powered down the court in transition and scored to trim the margin to three.
Then he came up with a steal at halfcourt in the press and fired a pass to Booker, who was fouled while attempting a dunk. The building shook like it hadn't all season – let alone the past decade -- and the Tigers were right where they wanted to be (down one, 61-60) when Booker hit the two free throws at the 4:54 mark.
And that's when everything unraveled again. Wake Forest attacked the basket both in transition and in its half-court sets, using a 10-1 run over a period of 2½ minutes to push the margin to 10.
The Tigers tried to press after Booker's free throws, but Wake Forest threw right over the top of it and scored on a thunderous one-handed jam by freshman Al-Farouq Aminu (12 points, 10 rebounds, four blocks).
The Demon Deacons ended up scoring on nine of their last 10 possessions and held the Tigers to just three baskets in the final five minutes – one of them an inconsequential 3-pointer by Oglesby with 19 seconds left.
The Tigers' half-court offense, a persistent weakness for much of the game, reverted back to disjointed form.
"We knew coming in they were going to make a run," said Wake Forest coach Dino Gaudio, whose team is off to the best start in school history. "We were just absolutely not going to panic."
Wake Forest committed 19 turnovers but ended up shooting 48.2 percent for the game. Sophomore guard Jeff Teague scored 24 points and helped the Deacons come up with stops on the other end, too.
"Our staple all year has been our defense," Gaudio said.
The Deacons did an effective job of limiting Booker's touches, particularly in the first half. His primary defender was 7-foot junior Chas McFarland.
"We tried to play before the catch," Gaudio said. "The best thing to do with those players who are great players is don't let them catch."
Purnell said Booker wasn't doing enough to make himself available in the first half.
"Booker wasn't posting up in the first half. He was just floating. Not to say McFarland didn't do a good job, but we weren't going inside like we should."
With all the attention on Booker, the Tigers' other interior players couldn't capitalize. Sykes and Jerai Grant combined to miss 15 of 19 shots. The Deacons totaled 11 blocks.
"We went to the offensive glass with quickness but then couldn't get those shots to go," Purnell said.
After defeating N.C. State at home a week earlier, the Tigers had plenty of time to rest and prepare for their big moment. But they looked jittery at the start under the rare glare of the national spotlight.
And Wake Forest, coming off Wednesday's dominating win at Boston College and a 92-89 home triumph over North Carolina on Sunday, looked right at home.
"I think we were just hyped out of our mind, and that hurt us more than it helped us," said Oglesby, who had 15 points. "We have to settle down and do a better job of keeping our emotions in check."
Oglesby said the Tigers were fine after the first TV timeout, so their frazzled start didn't cripple them.
But so much else did.
"If you don't play well, then you're going to have a tough time winning in this conference," Purnell said.
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