- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 23, 2010

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. | Wake Forest made quick work of the Atlantic Coast Conference’s surprise first-place team — with a little help from Virginia coach Tony Bennett.

Ishmael Smith scored 21 points Saturday to help the Demon Deacons beat the Cavaliers 69-57, giving Virginia its first league loss.

Chas McFarland added 16 points for the Demon Deacons (14-4, 4-2 Atlantic Coast Conference), who blew the game open with an 18-1 run spanning halftime. Wake Forest got plenty of close looks early and shot 52 percent, while its defense held the Cavaliers (12-5, 3-1) without a field goal for 10 minutes during the decisive spurt.

It was the third game this week for the Demon Deacons, who lost at Duke last weekend and won at North Carolina on Wednesday.

“We’re just trying to get better every day. That’s all,” coach Dino Gaudio said. “More than anything right now, they need a day off.”

Virginia was picked to finish 11th in the 12-team ACC, but entered as the last unbeaten team in league play for the first time since the 1994-95 season. The Cavaliers also had an eight-game winning streak, their longest in six years.

But it all came undone quickly against the Demon Deacons. And the outcome hinged on a relatively innocent-looking play and the ensuing decision by Bennett, the first-year coach who has been roundly praised during Virginia’s strong start.

Top scorer Sylven Landesberg picked up his second foul when he tried to rebound his own miss at 12:28 of the first half. That prompted Bennett to immediately pull the 6-foot-6 sophomore from the game, a common strategy to protect a player from picking up his third foul. But the coach went a step further and kept him on the bench the rest of the half — and the Cavaliers paid for it.

They hung around a bit and trailed just 18-14 on a layup from Mike Scott with 8:43 left, but the offense soon fell apart without its star. Wake Forest’s defense held the Cavs without a field goal the rest of the half, a stretch of 13 straight misses that helped the Demon Deacons build a big lead.

Smith closed the half by finding freshman C.J. Harris for a long 3-pointer to beat the horn for a 34-15 halftime lead, a margin that reached 24 points midway through the second half and never got below 10 points.

“You know, usually I hold a guy out if he gets two fouls (in the first half) and I just stuck to that,” Bennett said. “We talked about it on the bench during one of our timeouts. Then all of a sudden, it was maybe 2 or 3 minutes left where we said, ‘Boy, if we put Sylven back now, it might be foolish if he picked one up.

“I might have to reconsider thinking about that. It’s something you just try to have a feel for.”

The Demon Deacons noticed Landesberg’s long absence.

“Obviously it hurt them,” McFarland said, “and it gave us a little bit more confidence defensively.”

Landesberg — who picked up his third foul less than a minute into the second half — ended the 10-minute field-goal drought on a runner to make it 36-17 with 18:47 left. He finished with 18 points to match his season average with a second-half flurry before fouling out with 2:18 left.

He said he told Bennett that he could play with the two fouls, but the coach kept him out.

“When they started spreading the lead out, it was real nerve-racking,” said Landesberg, last year’s ACC rookie of the year. “I just wanted to get back in and help, but I couldn’t.”

Still, Virginia’s problems went beyond Landesberg’s absence.

While Wake Forest’s first seven baskets were lay-ups on an array of backdoor cuts or high-low entry passes, Virginia shot just 34 percent, including an eye-popping 6-for-29 (21 percent) in the first half.

“You’ve got to attribute that to our defense,” Smith said. “We’ve worked at it. It’s our third year at it, so each year and each game we just continue to get better and better at it.”

Smith finished 7-for-10 from the field to go with seven rebounds and six assists, while McFarland went 7-for-9. Al-Farouq Aminu added 10 points and 10 rebounds for Wake Forest.

Virginia played without reserve Calvin Baker, a senior guard who didn’t make the trip. When asked about Baker’s absence, Bennett said only that it was a “coach’s decision.”

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