NEW ORLEANS -- Wake Forest’s Ishmael Smith was careful not to immerse himself in basketball Thursday while waiting for his game later that night.
Playing the late game, he knew it would be a midnight finish or later and was determined to get his rest.
Plus, he’s a big “Law and Order” fan, and that’s where the television in his hotel room stayed for much of Thursday afternoon.
He did break away long enough from all the courtroom drama to see Murray State’s Danero Thomas beat Vanderbilt with his game-winner.
Little did Smith know that about eight hours later he would cap what had already been a wild and drama-filled day in the NCAA tournament with a buzzer-beater of his own.
“That’s how this tournament is,” said Smith, whose pull-up jumper with 1.3 seconds remaining sent Wake Forest to a thrilling 81-80 victory over Texas in overtime.
“You’re on top one minute, and the next minute you’re not. You’ve just got to keep fighting and keep gutting it out, and that’s what we did.”
The Demon Deacons (20-10) have seemingly been in survival mode ever since the middle of February. That’s after starting this season 18-5 and making a brief appearance in the Top 25.
And then last season, they were No. 1 in the polls after starting out 16-0.
But coming into this tournament, the only team in the field more disappointing than Wake Forest might have been the one on the other bench Thursday night at New Orleans Arena.
“It was a heck of college basketball game, two resilient teams kind of with the same storyline,” said Smith, who flirted with a dubious quadruple-double.
He had 19 points, 12 rebounds, seven assists … and eight turnovers. A lot of those turnovers came in the final minutes of regulation, as Texas climbed back into the game.
But it was Texas, which had lost nine of 16 games coming into this tournament, that couldn’t hold an eight-point lead in overtime.
While Smith’s shot might have won it for the Deacons, he said freshman Ari Stewart’s 3-pointer from the corner was actually bigger. Stewart’s 3 with a defender flying at him came with 15.9 seconds to play and pulled Wake Forest within a point
“We’re not the prettiest team in the world,” Wake Forest coach Dino Gaudio said. “We don’t shoot the ball straight at lot of times, but our defense was the difference in the basketball game, as was the backboard.
“So we live to fight another day.”
The Deacons obliterated the Longhorns on the boards and finished with a 59-34 rebounding advantage. It’s the worst Texas coach Rick Barnes can ever remember one of his teams being decimated on the boards.
But in the end, it was Wake Forest’s senior leader and point guard who ensured the Deacons would get a shot at No. 1 seeded Kentucky on Saturday in the second round.
That John Wall vs. Smith matchup ought to be one continuous blur.
“I’m sure everybody will be asking who’s the fastest,” Smith said.
Gaudio won’t enter that debate, but he knows who he wants if the game’s on the line.
“If I took that little guy out there right now, he wouldn’t make three straight 3s if he shot 100 of them,” Gaudio said. “But he makes big shots, makes big free throws. He’s a lion. This team is led by a tough son of a gun at the point guard.”
Yep, it’s amazing how the complexion of an entire season can change with one shot come March.