November 23, 2021 

Wake Forest is off to its best start in a decade, don’t sleep on the Deacs

The Deacs are off to a 5-0 start this season – something they haven’t done since their 2009-10 campaign

The 2020-21 season was one of historic jubilee for the women’s basketball team at Wake Forest University ⁠— the smallest Power Five school by enrollment in the country.

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For the first time since 1988, and just the second time ever, the Demon Deacons played well enough to earn a bid to the NCAA tournament. Unfortunately, once they got there, the Deacs were thrashed by Oklahoma State, 84-61.

With the departures of gritty play-making point guard Gina Conti and talented forward Ivana Raca, many folks expected Wake Forest to regress this season, back to being a bottom-tier team in the ACC. The ACC’s Blue Ribbon Panel picked the Deacs to finish 12th in the preseason poll, while the league’s head coaches expected even less of them, pegging them to finish 13th.

Jen Hoover has other ideas though, about what Wake Forest is and what it can be this season.

She doesn’t want last season to be this once-in-a-blue-moon thing. The Wake Forest graduate – now in her 10th season as the head coach of her alma mater – wants postseason appearances to be the standard in Winston-Salem, not a rarity.

“I didn’t come home to just come home; I came home to win championships,” Hoover said last month at the ACC Tip-Off event in Charlotte. “And I think this group really wants that. It’s not ever going to be easy – I don’t think anyone would say it would be – but I’m in for the long haul.

“They’ll tell each other, ‘I need you to push me every day,’ because Natasha Mack didn’t take it easy on us in the NCAA tournament, so, why would you?”

The Deacs are off to a 5-0 start this season – something they haven’t done since their 2009-10 campaign. Mike Petersen was the head coach then, and Hoover was padding her resume on the west coast, working as an assistant at Cal.

At first glance, Wake’s wins might not look super impressive. But take a closer look.

On opening night, the Deacs won at Mercer – an NCAA tournament team last season that returns four starters – by double digits. And then Wake trounced the teams how an ACC squad should. They beat Cornell by 22 points, topped UNC Greensboro by 11, bested Charlotte – a WNIT team a year ago – by six, and squashed East Carolina by 21.

This Wake Forest team is on a roll. And while last season’s accomplishment was one the Deacs celebrated, they’re looking forward, not backward. They’re thinking about what they can do now, in this season – not about what Conti and Raca led them to in the past.

“I think we enjoyed last year, just seeing our name pop up on the board for the first time. It’s our first time doing that. And even though we lost in the first round, it gave us experience,” sophomore Jewel Spear told The Next at the ACC Tip-Off event. “So, now we know there’s a standard, and we know what it takes to get to the NCAA’s. But we also know that we have to do even more to win.”

A big reason why Wake has been so successful to start this year is because of Spear. The Wake teams of old belonged to Conti and Raca; they were the leaders. But Spear sure seems to be in-command of the Deacs now. She grabbed the baton from Conti and Raca and is sprinting ahead with it.

Last week, Spear was voted ACC Co-Player of the Week – sharing the nod with Virginia Tech’s Elizabeth Kitley. Here’s what the sophomore did in Wake’s first three games:

  • 14 points, five rebounds, a steal and an assist at Mercer.
  • 32 points, three rebounds and three steals vs. Cornell.
  • 24 points, four assists, two rebounds and a steal against UNCG.

Against East Carolina, she tallied 19 points, two rebounds and two assists. And shot a near-perfect 10-of-11 from the charity stripe. Spear is averaging 20.2 points per game this season. No other Wake Forest player is averaging more than eight. Spear also leads Wake in minutes played (33.6) and three-pointers made (13). She leads the nation in free throws made with 28, and she’s sixth in the country in win shares with 2.1. Additionally, Spear ranks second in the ACC in points per-play, with a mark of 1.08, according to Her Hoop Stats.

As a freshman, Spear contributed heavily to Wake’s historic season. The guard from The Colony, Texas averaged 10.9 points per game and set a program freshman record with 2.32 made three’s per-game. She was named to the ACC All-Freshman Team and the All-ACC Tournament Team, earning the latter honor after dropping 29 points – the most by a Wake freshman under Hoover – in a first-round win over North Carolina. The seven three’s Spear connected on vs. UNC tied an ACC tournament record.

Over the summer, Spear played in Hungary with the U-19 USA Basketball team at the FIBA World Championships. She shared the USA backcourt with familiar ACC faces, like Notre Dame’s Sonia Citron, Louisville’s Payton Verhulst and N.C. State’s Diamond Johnson.

“One thing I focused on is getting to the rim more and getting to my floaters. My coaches have told me that (defenses) are going to run me off the line more, they’re going to trap me, they might face-guard me, they might double-team me. So, just giving me those scenarios in practices so I see that, and knowing when to not force it,” Spear said. Knowing that people do have film on me, unlike last year. So, I’m watching film, and seeing how they guarded me last year vs. how they’re guarding me this year.

“I know I’m not really going to get any more wide-open spaces.”

Wake Forest head coach Jen Hoover talks to reporters at the ACC Tip-Off in Charlotte in October 2021. (Mitchell Northam / The Next)

But Wake Forest is more than just Spear. Junior forward Olivia Summiel started just two games before this season. Now – with five starts under her belt this season – she’s leading the team in rebounding with 8.2 boards per game, which is sixth-best in the ACC. And often sharing the backcourt with Spear is sophomore Elise Williams. The Raleigh native leads Wake in assists with 3.1 dimes per game.

Wake is also playing some elite team defense. They’re 16th in the nation in points allowed per game, giving up just 48.6 a night. The Deacs are also holding teams to an effective field goal percentage of 35.6%, which is the 22nd best in the nation, according to Her Hoop Stats.

“I think we could be a surprise to a lot of people. I think people look at us and they want to talk about Jewel,” Hoover said. “But I hate to tell them, there’s some other pieces to the puzzle. But maybe they just don’t know them yet. They’re going to find out though.”

Wake Forest’s first real test against a Power Five opponent will be on Dec. 1, when the Deacs host Nebraska in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. But where Wake will have to prove itself is in ACC play, which begins for the Deacs on Dec. 19 at Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets were ranked to start the year but fell out of the AP Top 25 Poll after falling to Auburn.

Hoover, who has played and coached in the conference, knows how difficult it is to garner recognition and esteem in the ACC. And when a team doesn’t have that notoriety, recruiting can be difficult. Spear was one of the highest-rated recruits Hoover landed. In this year’s class, the Deacs were able to bring in another top 60 player in Raegyn Conley.

“It is tough to make a rise in this league,” Hoover said. “Like, every year, you think you’re making ground and then you look at the rosters and you’re like, ‘Look at what they did. How many McDonald’s All-Americans do they have?’ … We have to earn respect because we feel like we don’t get a lot of it.”

Winning more – and certainly making a second straight NCAA tournament – will help Wake climb the ladder in the ACC. It’ll probably help to recruit, too, improving rosters for years to come.

The Deacs might not be there quite yet, but they seem to be on their way to consistency in the conference.

Written by Mitchell Northam

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