It's hard not to like Tanner Smith. He doesn't have the skill set or the brute strength that a lot of other guys possess, but he plays his heart out every single game. It's just hard not to respect a guy that goes out there and plays hard every single play. He's often been criticized for making too many mental mistakes and turning the ball over too much, but guess how many turnovers he had today? None. What he did have was a spectacular game, finishing with a career-high 26 points. He shot 50% from the field (8-16, 2-5 from downtown) and went 8-9 at the line. He also recorded 3 rebounds, 3 assists, and 3 steals. He didn't play a perfect game, as he sat for much of the first half in foul trouble, but he had what has to be considered one of the best games of his career, as he helped lead Clemson to a comeback OT win over the Salukis of Southern Illinois.
These Tigers have struggled in the early portion of games a lot this year, so it was great to see such a fast start today. The Salukis were disfunctional on offense in the opening minutes, turning the ball over four times on their first five possessions. The Tigers, meanwhile, had a hot start, as Devin Booker scored five of the Tigers' first seven points, and Clemson led 9 to 1 just a little over two-and-a-half minutes into the game. The Tigers kept things going offensively, but the lead shrank as SIU caught fire shooting the ball. The Salukis came into the game ranked 345th in the country in shooting the 3, but they were unstoppable from the outside in the early going, making 6 of their first 7 shots from beyond the arc.
Even with SIU shooting well, we were doing fine on offense and it looked like all we had to do was outlast the hot streak from SIU and we'd be in good shape for a possible double-digit lead at the half. But then Tanner and Devin both got into foul trouble and were forced to sit on the bench. Tanner picked up his second foul at the 15 minute mark, and Devin picked up two quick fouls shortly thereafter. What happened next was disastrous.
Clemson went over 12 straight minutes without a field goal against UTEP, but the Tigers outdid themselves today. They scored their last field goal of the half at the 13:36 mark, which was just before Devin picked up his second foul. They wouldn't score again until the second possession of the 2nd half. That's over 14 minutes without a single field goal.
This offense needs Tanner Smith in order to be effective. When UTEP shut him down with their junk defense, our offense went straight to hell, and when he sat out for much of the first half in foul trouble today, our offense went straight to hell. Without Tanner in the game, the offense couldn't get anything done inside, and Andre was often seen throwing up 3s out of frustration.
Andre did make one 3 today, his first in three games, but he took a lot of deep shots that never should have been taken, and finished 1-6 from beyond the arc. Rod Hall continued to show that he can't make a jump-shot; he also showed that he has trouble making contested layups. With Devin and Milton sitting on the bench due to foul trouble and turning the ball over too much, the Tigers tried various combinations of Bobo, McDaniels, and Sullivan in the frontcourt, but those guys couldn't get anything going. And without Tanner to direct things at the top of the key, the Tigers just looked lost on offense.
I understand that you have to sit a player when he picks up two fouls, but when your team is playing that badly, I think you don't really have any other option other than playing the guy and hoping he doesn't pick up any more fouls. It's better to play the foul-plagued player than to go 14 minutes without scoring a basket.
Even with the absolute ineptitude of our offense, we only trailed by 7 at the half. And with the starting lineup back in to start the 2nd half, the Tigers quickly got things going again on the offensive end. They came out of their slump in a big way, scoring 7 points in a 90-second stretch to cut away at the SIU lead. Then Tanner Smith scored 7 points by himself in just 30 seconds (an and-one 3 followed by an and-one deuce) that gave the Tigers' their first lead since the 11:31 mark of the 1st half. And, once again, it looked like the Tigers had things under control.
Enter Milton Jennings.
Devin Booker had just picked up his fourth foul on an illegal screen (how many times have we seen that this year?!), so Milton needed to step it up if we wanted to hold on to our 1-point lead. He had played poorly up to this point (1-5 shooting, 2 turnovers) but with just over 8 minutes left in the game, Milton decided to take things to a whole new level of suck.
Following a miss by SIU's Mamadou Seck, Milton decided to watch the ball rattle around the rim rather than look for anyone to box out, and he was posterized by SIU's Davante Drinkard, who grabbed the rebound and dunked on his face. On the ensuing Tigers possession, Milton telegraphed a pass to Tanner at the top of the key, and the Salukis were able to get an easy steal and an easy layup. Brad Brownell was forced to call a timeout to stop the bloodletting, and he obviously decided to bench Milton. But Milton was mad that he was being benched, and talked back to Brownell. Things got so heated that Brownell made Milton go back to the locker room to cool off, and Milton didn't see the floor again in the game.
So, to reiterate, Milton fails to box out, gets dunked on, then commits an atrocious turnover, and he's mad that he's taken out of the game?! And he goes as far as to talk back to the coach?! This is just the latest incident in a long line of Milton incidents, and I for one am sick and tired of it. The guy plays with no confidence, makes terrible decisions passing the ball, and then talks back to the coach when he gets benched for his poor play?!
Brownell thought that pulling his starting spot would finally waken him up, but since he lost his starting position, his play hasn't progressed at all. And then this happened. I honestly don't know what the hell to do with him.
In a perfect world, he wouldn't see the court again. Oh, if only...
Fortunately for all of us, Milton's attempt at harpooning our chances in the game were thwarted by Tanner and Rod Hall. Tanner made a couple of key shots down the stretch and also made a couple of nice dishes to Devin Booker who finished with some sweet jams.
Still, the Tigers found themselves down 3 with just under ten seconds to play. Rod Hall carried the ball up the court, but there was no one to pass to, as SIU played great perimeter defense. With 7 seconds to go, Hall made the decision to attack the basket and try to pick up the 2. If the SIU defender had any sense at all, he would have let Rod score the layup. Clemson would have still been down 1 with only about 3 or 4 seconds left on the clock. SIU would have only needed to inbounds the ball and make a couple of free throws. Instead, the defender inexplicably fouled Rod, who went on to make the most important free throw of his young career to force overtime. So, bad decision by Rod, but it all worked out in the end.
The Tigers dominated the overtime period, with Tanner scoring 10 of the Tigers' 21 points. I'm really happy that we got the victory, and I'm excited about the potential of a hopefully permanent starting lineup of Tanner, Andre, Devin, B-Nice, and Rod, but this team has absolutely no depth to it. When Tanner and Devin sat in the first half, our offense was beyond awful. If Tanner and Devin can stay out of foul trouble in the coming games, we actually have a pretty good chance to play spoiler for a lot of teams. But if they continue to struggle with staying out of foul trouble, it will continue to be a very, very, very long season.
Clemson's next game comes on Christmas Day against either Xavier or Hawaii (probably Xavier, though).
Thoughts on the 14 minute stretch of offensive ineptitude? What about Tanner's stellar play? And, what the hell should Brownell do with Milton Jennings? Leave it in the comments.