On a night where the stars don’t come out to shine, a team can chose one of two paths. Either stare at the sky and wait for the stars to come out, or adapt to survive. The Clemson Tigers (7-1) did the latter on Tuesday night, using a second half surge to top the South Carolina State Bulldogs 65-49.
Clemson, who is still struggling to find its offensive identity, trotted out a new starting lineup featuring Sophomore Guard Devin Coleman. Coleman, making the first start of his career, didn’t know that he would be featured in the starting five until Tuesday afternoon. The Tigers got off to a sluggish start as the Bulldogs opened the game on a 7-0 run. Coach Brownell, not liking what he saw from the starting five, made wholesale substitutions less than two minutes into the game sending in Ibrahim Djambo, Damarcus Harrison and Josh Smith to look for the offensive spark.
The spark the Tigers needed didn’t come until the 15:31 mark when Coleman drew first blood with a three pointer from the top of the arc to stop the early bleeding. The Tigers attempted to trade baskets with the Bulldogs, but South Carolina State was hot from the floor and Clemson couldn’t keep up while having an off shooting night from their stars. After the second TV timeout, Clemson was shooting 30% compared to 67% from South Carolina State and found themselves in a 20-11 hole after a Darryl Palmer layup.
During that TV Timeout, Devin Coleman decided to strap the team on his shoulders starting with a made three pointer with 8:17 remaining in the half. Coleman would score 10 of the next 12 points to finish the half on a 23-11 run that would give the Tigers a 34-31 lead at the half.
At halftime, I was furious as the Tigers just weren’t playing fundamental basketball. South Carolina State featured a 2-3 and a 3-2 zone which the Tigers appeared to have no interest in breaking. The ball would be held at the point, or swung around the perimeter looking for an open shot. The offensive penetration was so poor in the first half that the Bulldogs didn’t pick up their first foul of the game until there was only 7:41 remaining in the first half; a feat which is nearly impossible with the new College Basketball rules. The Tigers were also uncharacteristically sloppy with the ball, with 8 turnovers at the half leading to 10 Bulldog points. Adonis Filer entered the game at the 14 minute mark, and was quickly yanked after two turnovers left me questioning whether Jordan Roper needed to be running the point for the second team.
As usual, I was frustrated with the big men. Every Clemson possession seemed like a one and done as Landry Nnoko and Josh Smith weren’t getting off the floor for rebounds and were being beating by smaller and quicker forwards. While the offensive production was minimal, the first half performance from the big men is something that I have to put on the guards. The times that I did notice Nnoko or Smith flash open in the paint, the guards would look them off as if they were afraid to throw the high low entry pass. The Tigers also struggled a little defensively. The defense wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t good either as the Tigers struggled to find the open man off screens while the Bulldogs were hitting every mid-range jumper that they took.
Only the players and the coaching staff know what was said at halftime, but one thing was clear, message received. The Tigers chose to adapt to the fact that leading scorer K.J. McDaniels wasn’t on the scoring sheet and Damarcus Harrison was sidelined with only two points himself. The Tigers would come out and rely on their defense, knowing that the South Carolina State contested shots couldn’t keep falling.
South Carolina State opened the second half making only 5 of its first 21 shots and with Coleman being targeted and used as a baseline runner against the compacted zone defense, it was Nnoko’s turn to steal the spotlight. After an uninspired first half performance from both Nnoko and Smith, both men seemed to grow up in my eyes during the second half. They scored six consecutive points in a spurt at the 13 minute mark that would put Clemson up by double digits for good. Nnoko showed heart from a big man, staying on the floor until the 10:31 mark when Clemson called a timeout and the big man was on the sideline with his hands on his knees getting a well earned breather.
After an unbelievable hot shooting first half, the Bulldogs were held to only 23.3% shooting from the floor, and just 18 points in the second half as Clemson pulled away in a game that could have easily turned into a nail biter. McDaniels got his first points with a 3-pointer with 14:29 remaining, but just couldn’t get his jump shot to fall, shooting only 3-10 and 1-5 from behind the arc. Coleman didn’t score in the second half, but finished with 16 first half points that kept the Tigers from having to play catch up basketball in the second half. Landry Nnoko finished with his second career double-double with 13 points and 13 rebounds on 5-6 shooting.
A night like this again has me looking at the potential for these men. Imagining a lineup where McDaniels is aggressively getting to the basket and hitting his shots, Rod Hall is distributing the ball to an open Devin Coleman and Jordan Roper in the corners for open jumpers while Landry Nnoko is patrolling the paint for offensive rebounds leaves me salivating. We will just have to wait and leave it to the coaching staff to get all of the pistons firing as the Tigers travel to Arkansas on Saturday (2pm, CSS/ESPN3) for their toughest remaining non-conference test.