TAMPA, Fla., March 21 (UPI) -- Second seed Wake Forest avoided a major upset Friday as Josh Howard hit a pair of free throws with 21 seconds left en route to a 76-73 victory over 15th seed East Tennessee State in an East Region matchup of the NCAA Tournament.
A heavy favorite, the Demon Deacons (25-5) never were able to shake the pesky, Buccaneers, the champions of the Southern Conference.
"In this tournament, no one is just going to go away," said Wake Forest freshman center Eric Williams, who had a career-best 20 points. "East Tennessee had that fire and kept fighting."
After Taron Downey hit a pair of three-pointers during an 8-0 run that gave Wake Forest a 72-64 lead with 2 1/2 minutes remaining, East Tennessee State freshman point guard Tim Smith made a pair of his own during an 8-0 run that tied it with 28 seconds to play.
Smith tied the contest with a three-pointer and the Buccaneers put on a full-court press on the ensuing inbounds pass. But the Demon Deacons broke it and Howard was fouled near the right sideline with 21 seconds left. His two free throws gave Wake Forest a two-point lead.
Each team split a pair of free throws, leaving East Tennessee State with a 75-73 deficit. Smith, who had blown past the defense on numerous occasions, opted for a three-pointer from the left corner that he airballed with one second left.
"If they hit the three-pointer, you're saying he had unbelievable courage and what a gutsy call it was," said Wake Forest Coach Skip Prosser, whose team never trailed.
The 5-9 Smith scored 22 points while playing all 40 minutes, but he was unable to lead the Bucs to the fifth first-round win by a No. 15 since the tournament went to 64 teams in 1985.
"We really thought we could win the game," East Tennessee Coach Ed DeChellis said. "We thought we could come in and do something special. Our guys were convinced of that. I'm proud of our effort. We were just a basket away."
Howard finished with only 12 points, eight fewer than his average. But he had 13 rebounds, three blocks and hit the clutch free throws down the stretch.
"Sometimes we realize Josh carries this team, but there are five guys out there playing," Williams said. "It's five on five. Josh realizes that. We're a team. We win as a team and lose as a team."
Williams and Downey picked up the slack for Wake Forest, totaling 37 points. Jamaal Levy added 14 points for the Deacons, who shot just 42 percent from the field.
Downey scored 17 points, going five of eight from three-point range. Wake Forest was just six of 23 as a team from behind the arc.
"Big shots by Downey is what killed us," Bucs guard Ryan Lawson said. "They got shots off and he knocked them down. That's what great players do."
Despite struggling from the field, Gray chipped in 11 points, six rebounds and eight assists. Williams and Levy totaled another 18 boards for the best rebounding team in the nation, which held a 48-38 advantage off the glass.
The Deacons, the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season champions who have the league's player and coach of the year, will face 10th seed Auburn in the second round Sunday.
The matchup was an emotional one for Prosser and DeChellis, friends from Western Pennsylvania. They spoke on the telephone two hours before the brackets were announced Sunday.
"This victory was bittersweet," Prosser said. "He is one of my best friends in the business. Our wives are friends, we spend time at each other's houses and he even came up to watch us practice. I like Eddie a lot, but I love my kids more."
Smith scored 22 points and Wadood added 20 for the Bucs, who shot just 40 percent from the field in their first tournament appearance since 1992.
Williams scored seven points in the opening 6:20 as the Deacons raced to a 9-4 lead. Wake Forest had a 13-4 lead, but was unable to shake East Tennessee, which was within 34-27 at halftime.
The Deacons built a pair of 10-point leads in the first 3:40 of the second half, but East Tennessee scored seven straight points to tie it at 46-46 with 12:19 remaining.
Wake Forest again looked like it would pull away when Howard and Levy scored four points apiece in an 8-0 surge that made it 57-49 with 9:50 to play. It was 64-57 when the Bucs scored seven straight points to tie it with 4:40 to go.