Tim Duncan showed why he might be the best player in college basketball as he led 12th-ranked Wake Forest to a 60-56 win over 13th-ranked Utah Thursday night at Lawrence Joel Coliseum.

Duncan scored a season-high 24 points, grabbed 12 rebounds, blocked four shots and came up with two key baskets in the final minute-and-a-half to lead the Deacons' victory.The defeat was the second for the Utes against six wins this year and the second against a nationally-ranked opponent. As in the loss to Kansas, Utah held the lead in the second half, but couldn't hold on down the stretch.

Behind 59-56 with 31 seconds left, the Utes set up their favorite play, a double screen for Mark Rydalch coming off the baseline. It worked perfectly as Rydalch got a wide-open 3-pointer from the right angle with 18 seconds left. But the shot wouldn't fall and the Deacons clinched it with a free throw by Jerry Braswell with 12.3 seconds remaining.

"This was a great game for us to play," said Ute coach Rick Majerus. "They're a great team and Duncan is a terrific player. You've got to give them a lot of credit."

The Utes were led by Keith Van Horn, who scored 20 points and Brandon Jessie, who scored 17 in his first game back to the Ute lineup after a seven-game suspension.

"I was proud of Brandon tonight," said Majerus of Jessie, who missed his first five shots but came back strong in the second half.

Actually the whole Ute team started off abysmally, making only two of their first 15 shots from the field to quickly fall behind 15-6.

But they didn't quit and Van Horn, whose first basket came at the 8:16 mark, finally got going and his slam-dunk on a follow shot gave Utah a 26-24 lead at halftime.

Jessie scored six straight points to give Utah its largest lead at 34-28 with 15:44 left. However, Wake Forest answered with a 13-2 run to take the lead at 41-36 and was never headed.

The lead got as high as 48-40 with six minutes left when Utah clawed back again. Van Horn sank a trey, hit a jumper, Jessie scored four points and Van Horn tipped in a Jessie miss. When Rydalch hit a 3-pointer with 2:25 left, it was all tied at 54-54.

Ricardo Peral hit a free throw and Jessie missed at the other end. Then Duncan made a bank shot from straight on in the lane to make it 57-54. Jessie hit a jumper to close the gap to one, but Duncan came back with a dunk off a nice feed from Tony Rutland with 33 seconds left.

Utah had its worst shooting game of the season, hitting just 20 of its 57 shots for 35 percent. Michael Doleac struggled against Duncan inside, making just one of 10 shots. However, Majerus praised Doleac's defense for most of the game against Duncan.

The Utes were to return home Friday and prepare for USC Saturday night at home. After a break for Christmas they play Cal-Fullerton Wednesday before opening Western Athletic Conference play the following week against BYU.

GAME NOTES: Among the courtside observers were 24 NBA scouts, on hand to see Duncan and Van Horn . . . Also watching the game was former Ute Ticky Burden, who lives in Winston-Salem . . . The Demon Deacons will play the Utes in Salt Lake next year.