All season long we have been asking ourselves, what would happen if the role players embraced their roles? Lived up to their potential? Provided a significant threat to show that this team wasn't just a one trick pony? On Super Tuesday in the ACC, we got our answer to that question as the North Carolina State Wolfpack (16-10) (6-7) traveled to Littlejohn Coliseum to take on the Clemson Tigers (16-9) (7-6).
The teams came into the night looking at exactly the same situation. Both were 6-6 in the ACC looking to crack into the top portion of the league. Both had their faces pressed against the NCAA Tournament Bubble on the outside looking in, and both knew that a loss tonight would all but pop that bubble. The teams were also heading in different directions. Clemson had lost 3 in a row after a hard fought 63-58 loss Saturday afternoon to the 17th ranked Cavaliers and were looking to get back on track. Meanwhile, the Wolfpack had managed to climb their way into ACC conversations as winners of 5 of their last 7 including a questionable 1 point loss to top ranked Syracuse in New York on Saturday.
Aside from coming into the contest with virtually identical records, Clemson and NC State are very similar teams. Both struggle to shoot the 3-point ball (NC State is last in all of the NCAA in percentage of points scored from beyond the 3-point line), both teams have work to do in developing offense in the post, and both teams have one dominant scorer that can take over the game; K.J. McDaniels for Clemson, and for NC State, the 7th leading scorer in the country, T.J. Warren. (23.1ppg)
Clemson would try to keep Warren under wraps with a starting five of Rod Hall, Damarcus Harrison (who looks to have won the starting spot over Adonis Filer for now), K.J. McDaniels, Jaron Blossomgame and Sidy Djitte, making the first start of his young career as Landry Nnoko, while still available, was still fighting off flu like symptoms.
NC State opened the game with a crystal clear strategy. If Clemson was going to have to win, they were going to have to do it without K.J. McDaniels offensively. The Wolfpack highlighted three different defenses during the night. A standard man-to-man in which every attempt would be made to deny McDaniels the ball, a match-up zone which would extend away from the ball to make sure a man was always in K.J.'s back pocket, and a rarely seen Box-and-1 zone where McDaniels was marked man-to-man while the rest of the Wolfpack stayed in an interior zone.
I think we can now call Brad Brownell the master of timing as he picked the perfect time to pull Rod Hall aside before the game and tell him that ne heeds more scoring production from his point guard. Rod got the message loud and clear as he would score the games first 5 points on jumpers including one were he was fouled and would hit the free throw. He was penetrating with ease and using his jumper rather than attempting to force his way to the basket like he has much of the season.
NC State would lend a helping hand in an opening 7-0 Clemson run as they would turn the ball over 4 times in their first 5 possessions. Like many Clemson basketball games, the teams would just love to show the analysts wrong. As two of the poorer shooting 3-point teams squared off, they decided to start letting them fly. Ralston Turner would nail 2 in a row, but they were quickly negated by Adonis Filer and Damarcus Harrison nailing 3's of their own. T.J. Warren finally got on the scoreboard for the Pack making a pair of free throws to cut the Clemson lead to 13-8.
After starting 2-of-9 from the field, the Wolfpack shots would start to fall. A flurry of jumpers would begin from Anthony Barber, Desmond Lee and Kyle Washington to get the Wolfpack going. This quick burst was immediately answered by the Clemson big men as Landry Nnoko and Josh Smith were fed entry passes and finished at the rim. Immediately, Clemson would put another touchdown on the board using another 7-0 spurt from McDaniels and Hall concluded by a Rod Hall layup while being fouled. The free throw would put Clemson ahead 26-14 in a game that Clemson looked like it was about to run away with.
But it's never that easy is it folks? With 7:13 remaining in the half, the Wolfpack would go on a gut wrenching 19-6 run helped by Clemson turnovers and missed shots. After starting 2-9 from the field, the Wolfpack would finish the half 9-of-11 from the field to get back in the game. Landry Nnoko and Austin Ajukwa would have the only other Clemson points for the remainder of the half as a T.J. Warren jumper with 7 seconds remaining in the half turned a potential blowout into a 1-point halftime deficit as Clemson trailed at the half by a score of 33-32.
With the game basically reset after a somewhat dominant first half, you wondered if Clemson was disheartened and would revert back to the play of the closing minutes of the first half. The Tigers would quickly put our minds at ease absolutely exploding out of the gate to the tune of a 9-0 run. You wanted Clemson role players? You got them. The run was spurred by Rod Hall, Landry Nnoko, Damarcus Harrison and Jaron Blossomgame with McDaniels adding only a pair of free throws.
Clemson also turned up the defensive tenacity as the run would end and NC State would score its first bucket of the half with 16:39 remaining, which was quickly answered by a Jaron Blossomgame layup to swell the Clemson lead back to 43-35. As NC State quickly switched back to a zone defense, Clemson took that opportunity to show their range. As Kyle Washington managed to keep the Pack within striking distance, Blossomgame, Filer and Harrison would all hit 3-pointers, with Harrison's extending the lead to 54-42.
T.J. Warren would make sure that NC State wouldn't go down without a fight as he would quickly spurt off 7 consecutive points causing Brownell to take a timeout and re-gather his troops as the lead was back down to 56-49 with 9:10 remaining.
The remainder of the game was a clinic. We were seeing a Clemson team play with offensive confidence that we haven't seen since the thrashing of Duke back in early January. Clemson was pulling up and hitting jump shots, and more impressively, Clemson was feeding the ball inside at will and the big men were finishing and making interior passes of their own with ease and confidence.
Clemson would once again run away with the game with the final horn sounding and Clemson came away with a 73-56 win. Rod Hall led the Tigers in scoring with a career high 20 points on 6-of-10 shooting and a perfect 8-of-8 from the free throw line. Damarcus Harrison would finish with 14 points and McDaniels would finish with 12 on 3-of-6 shooting. While not scoring his average (17.6ppg) on the night, McDaniels was still a force to be reckoned with adding an incredible 6 blocked shots and pulling down 4 rebounds. T.J. Warren would lead NC State in scoring with 20 on 8-of-15 shooting while Ralston Turner was the only other Wolfpack in double figures finishing with 11, all of which came in the first half.
Let's take a look at some statistics to see just how different of a game this was for the Tigers. Clemson shot 47.9% from the field tonight, its best shooting percentage since the December 14th thrashing of Furman. Clemson's 73 points are the most points it has scored since scoring 80 back on December 30th against VMI. While it is frequent that McDaniels is the only Tiger in double figures, he was the third leading scorer tonight behind Hall and Harrison. Clemson also managed 20 points off of the bench, its best outing since their January 26th loss at North Carolina.
Clemson will have the remainder of the week off before traveling to Atlanta to start a crucial two game road swing as they take on the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets at 12:00pm on ESPN3. Stay tuned to Shakin the Southland for more Clemson Basketball coverage.