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With fallen coach in their hearts, Deacons prepare for ACC tourney

Wake Forest coach Dino Gaudio takes a shot as he leads his team during practice Wednesday.
Wake Forest coach Dino Gaudio takes a shot as he leads his team during practice Wednesday.

CHARLOTTE -- They've accomplished so much already.

There's still the memory pushing them to do better.

Wake Forest's Demon Deacons tip off the 55th ACC tournament at noon today, needing to win a game or two to clinch an NCAA tournament berth and further reverse their late-season skid. Whatever happens this weekend, it's been a fine season for Wake, tying for sixth in the rugged ACC after being picked 11th.

Most give the Demon Deacons credit for just being able to play after the shocking death of coach Skip Prosser last summer.

"Our motto is, 'One team, one fight,'" said guard Jeff Teague, pointing to the rubber wristbands with the same slogan that each player wears. "He's a part of us. Last summer we all sat down together and made it our mission and we stuck together this whole year."

Wake was coming off a two-year NCAA tournament drought last summer when Prosser returned to his office from a short jog. He suffered a massive heart attack and threw the Deacons' world into a tailspin.

Teague was one of three freshmen who were already on campus doing preseason conditioning work when it happened. The coach they had committed to was gone, they didn't know who was going to replace him and really, did basketball even matter?

"It was hard on me ... I called my parents, didn't know where I was supposed to be," said Teague, a native of Indianapolis. "It was like, 'What do I do'"

Prosser's longtime assistant and friend, Dino Gaudio, was promoted and given a five-year deal, despite an abysmal head coaching record. In seven years at Army and Loyola (Md.), Gaudio's best record was 13-15. But Wake Athletics Director Ron Wellman figured Gaudio was the right man for the job after serving under Prosser since 2001.

Gaudio gathered his team around him, they all broke down together and realized the only way to honor their late coach and friend was to play. So they took the court with low expectations and unknown talent and started healing.

"We've been looked down upon the whole season," sophomore L.D. Williams said. "'Can't play well on the road, can't do this, can't do that.' But we knew we had some talent and we wanted to play well for coach. It was the least we could do."

The Deacons won 11 of their first 14 and hit the ACC, where they lost five of their first eight. A three-game winning streak was capped with a home defeat of then-No. 2 Duke, the Blue Devils' first conference loss, and Wake was in business.

Wake dropped four straight after the Duke win before rebounding to beat N.C. State in the regular-season finale. Entering the ACC tournament and playing Florida State, a team they've beaten twice this year, the Deacons know what they have to do to have a shot at the NCAAs.

It's the same thing they've tried to do all season -- win it for Skip.

"We've really worked hard on the fundamentals and mental approach to the game," Gaudio said. "I think that's a philosophy that's been handed down from Skip."

The Deacons are 17-12 and finished 7-9 in the ACC. Teague and fellow freshman James Johnson each made the all-rookie team, Johnson a unanimous selection. The duo became the first ACC tandem this decade to lead their team in scoring as freshmen.

Wake has never been much of a one-and-done ACC tournament team. The Deacons played in one of the best games in tournament history last year, beating Georgia Tech in double overtime in the first round before bowing out in the second. Since the last time they won it (1996), the Deacons have reached the semifinals five times in 11 tries.

It's all set up for them, although the road is treacherous. Waiting for the winner of the Wake-FSU game is No. 1 North Carolina, which thrashed the Deacs by 16 points on Feb. 24.

The memory of Prosser has been an inspiration and not a cloud. Perhaps it will propel the Deacons into something that's never been done in the ACC -- tournament champions after winning four games in four days.

"We're loose, we're really loose," said guard Ishmael Smith. "We just hope we can make it and we hope we can get it started (today) at noon."

"Coach explains it as there's the Super Bowl, there's the NCAA tournament, then there's the ACC tournament," Williams said. "We have a little bit more to do here. Coach Prosser was the biggest thing that happened to a lot of us.

"He's really a big part of what we're doing."

TODAY'S SCHEDULE

Wake Forest vs. Florida State (CBS, cable channel 5 in Rock Hill), noon

Miami vs. N.C. State (CBS), 2:30 p.m.

Georgia Tech vs. Virginia (ESPN2, cable channel 28 in Rock Hill), 7 p.m.

Maryland vs. Boston College (WJZY, cable channel 8 in Rock Hill), 9:30 p.m.

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