Staff Photo: John Bohn Carla Hamby, top center, cheers for her daughter, Dearica Hamby of the Wake Forest women's basketball team during an NCAA game against Georgia Tech played Thursday at Gwinnett Arena. Dearica Hamby is a former Norcross High School player. Holding sign at bottom left is Rungie Ball, age 11, a fan of Dearica Hamby.
DULUTH -- It was hard to tell if Georgia Tech or Wake Forest was the home team Thursday night.
The Yellow Jackets women are playing temporarily in the Arena at Gwinnett Center this season, but it was a trio of Demon Deacons who had the more binding local connection.
"It's more our home court," Wake Forest junior Mykala Walker said before the game.
It certainly seemed that way from the large contingent of Demon Deacons rooters behind the team bench and across the court that filled usually unoccupied seats.
Walker, Erin Hall and Dearica Hamby were making a homecoming, and plenty of family and friends were there to loudly welcome them back.
The loudest roar came when Hall, who moments later suffered a cut over her left eye, swished a long 3-pointer midway through the first half. But Wake Forest couldn't come through despite the support, losing the ACC game 71-67.
Tyaunna Marshall had a double-double with 20 points and 12 rebounds for Georgia Tech (12-5, 2-2) and Sasha Goodlett scored 19.
"I'm really proud of the way our kids gutted it out with our defense," Yellow Jackets coach MaChelle Joseph said.
Down 10 points early in the second half, Wake Forest (11-5, 1-2) tied the game with 7:40 left. The Demon Deacons couldn't take the lead, though.
"I thought the crowd was great," Wake Forest coach Mike Petersen said. "I think it gave us some energy."
But Georgia Tech, who has lost only to Top 25 teams, made 5 of 6 free throws in the final minute, quieting the Demon Deacons supporters who had been drawn by the Gwinnett connection.
"As soon as I found out that Georgia Tech was playing their home games at the Gwinnett Arena, I called my whole family," said Walker, who grew up just minutes away.
The 6-foot former Duluth standout had 30 on her ticket list alone. Hall, a sophomore from Wesleyan, actually did her one better, though.
"I had the whole Wesleyan basketball program coming, sixth through 12th grade, plus all my family," Hall said.
Hamby, a 6-foot-3 freshman from Norcross, had made a bold prediction before the game. "I think we'll have more fans than Georgia Tech," she said.
Few could argue, although Yellow Jackets fans had more to cheer at the end.
Wake Forest's Gwinnett trio had a rough shooting night, combining to make 5 of 14 shots from the floor and finishing with 12 total points in 48 minutes.
All three are enjoying solid seasons, though.
Walker, who had five points and five rebounds, moved permanently into the regular lineup midway through last season and started her 27th straight game against Georgia Tech. Noted for her steady all-around game, she had her first college double-double with career highs of 16 points and 11 rebounds in a victory at SMU on Dec. 21.
Hall, meanwhile, had a breakout effort in Wake Forest's next game Dec. 29, scoring a career-best 16 points while hitting four 3-pointers in a victory over Maryland-Eastern Shore.
Hamby, progressing steadily as a freshman, also came into the Georgia Tech game playing well. She matched her season-best with nine rebounds in an ACC victory over Boston College last Sunday and had a 13-point game earlier.
Playing at the Arena was nothing new for Walker or Hamby, who also went through high school graduation ceremonies in the facility.
Hamby won a Class AAAAA state championship with Norcross last March in the Arena and Walker led Duluth to the Class AAAAA semifinals as a junior in 2008.
Gwinnett County and the rest of metro Atlanta is a key recruiting area for Wake Forest coach Mike Petersen. In addition to Walker, Hall and Hamby, the Demon Deacons have freshman forward Lauryn Webster of Marietta and signed Hillgrove guard Celina Rodrigo for the incoming recruiting class.
"This is a prime area for a lot of people," Petersen said. "The basketball is very good. Everybody in the ACC, the SEC and the Big East recruits here."
Not all of Walker's contributions to the Wake Forest basketball program come on the court. A communication major, she interviews Petersen for the Demon Deacons' weekly All-Access podcasts.
"Our goal this year was to have fun in the interviews," said Walker, who began doing them last season. "I think I'm getting more comfortable and they are a lot better."
The team is also getting better after slipping to 15-17 last year.
"We've improved a great deal, especially from last season to this season," Walker said. "We've really taken it serious and we're playing hard. It's good to see us getting better."
The Demon Deacons' slogan for the season is personal and team accountability and they wear "ACCountability" on bracelets as a constant reminder.
"We can't take them off except during the game," Hamby said.
Wake Forest justified the Gwinnett fan support against the Yellow Jackets, The Demon Deacons just couldn't give them a victory."I liked our effort," Petersen said. "We just didn't make enough plays to beat a good team like Georgia Tech."