In today's college basketball society, I am not a fan of how the term "must win" is tossed around on a nightly basis. However, as Georgia Tech (12-11) (3-7) traveled to Littlejohn coliseum to take on Clemson (15-6) (6-3) the Tigers knew that if they wanted to make a realistic run at an NCAA tournament appearance that this was a game that they would have to have.
Clemson entered the game looking for their 500th win in Littlejohn Coliseum and was also looking to start the season 10-1 on their home court before they would hit the road again for two more games at Syracuse and at Notre Dame. Standing in their way was a team that they had managed to fend off in 8 consecutive match ups on the 45 year old court.
Georgia Tech came hobbling into town without their leading scorer Trae Golden, leading rebounder Rober Carter Jr., Senior Jason Morris, and reserve guard Solomon Poole (who was recently kicked off the team). Clemson would attack the short handed Yellow Jackets with the same starting five that took them to a victory in Tallahassee with Rod Hall, Adonis Filer, K.J. McDaniels, Jaron Blossomgame and Landry Nnoko.
The game tipped off, and Clemson surprised me by showing a game plan of going right to Landry Nnoko for most of the first half and letting him go 1-on-1 with Redshirt Senior Daniel Miller. Nnoko would receive a bulk of the opening shots as his quick layup off of a pass from Filer gave the Tigers a 4-2 lead.
From here on out, and for a majority of the game, the teams tried to find their rhythm as this game turned into a contested jump shooting contest that neither team looked like they wanted to win. The real question that Tiger fans were asking was where was K.J. McDaniels? His jump shot was off early and he wasn't getting t the basket with the ease that we are spoiled with.
McDaniel's first bucket came on a jumper with 12:43 remaining in the first half to put Clemson ahead 9-8 in the early ride on the seesaw. Jordan Roper entered the game right before the television timeout and nailed his first of two three-pointers of the night to knot the game at 11 after a Kammeon Holsey layup put Tech ahead.
The next five minutes were five minutes that I wanted to forget and at the same time, loved to watch them. Clemson went on another one of their trademark 5+ minute draughts without a field goal as McDaniel left the game after picking up his second foul. While the offense was hard to watch, the defense was a thing of beauty. Landry Nnoko was doing a fantastic job of forcing Miller out of the paint and keeping him away from the basket, and the guards were quick in their rotations and contested every pass as Clemson managed to stay within one point after McDaniels entered the game and sank two free throws.
After the funk was over, Georgia Tech started to find their touch. After shooting one of their last six, they would hit five of their next seven with jumpers from Holsey and a three-pointer from Bolden. It looked like Georgia Tech was making an attempt to make a run to pull away. The only problem was, they hadn't anticipated Jordan Roper would match them step for step. After a mid-range jumper from the left baseline, Roper calmly stepped back and nailed his second three-pointer to give the lead back to Clemson 22-21 having scored the Tigers last 7 points. Clemson countered Georgia Tech's flurry by ending the half on a 7-0 run to take the lead into the locker room at 25-22 thanks to Ropers 10 first half points.
We all knew that there were going to be these games. McDaniels can't be on every game of the season and somebody was going to have to step up. Roper picked up the slack in the first half an Nnoko was doing his best, but somebody was going to have to put the final pieces into place in order for Clemson to pull out with their 15th victory.
The second half went a little something like this. Traveling violation, traveling violation, missed shot, missed shot, traveling violation, missed shot, rinse and repeat. After 10 minutes of hard nose defense and hard to watch offense, Clemson had managed to put 5 points on the board, and Georgia Tech 6. After a Damarcus Harrison mid-range jumper gave Clemson a slim 32-29 lead, Georgia Tech made a dash to the "first one to 40 points wins" finish line.
Marcus Georges-Hunt converted a layup and Daniel Miller played the pick and roll to perfection nailing two baseline 10 footers with feeds from Georges-Hunt and Georgia Tech had put together a quick 8-0 run to go up 37-32 with 6:40 remaining in the game. At this point it was clear that McDaniels wasn't on his game. Roper hadn't scored after his dominating first half performance, and the Tigers were in trouble.
Roper ended the Georgia Tech run with a clutch mid-range jumper to pull Clemson within three points and from there on out, the Tigers decided that if they couldn't get it done from the field, they would have to get it done from the free throw line. Rod Hall drew a foul going to the basket and calmly sank two free throws, and Landry Nnoko went to the line for a 1-and-1 sinking the front end to pull Clemson back within one.
The next Tech possession, Kammeon Holsey would turn the ball over to Rod Hall who ran down the court on the fast break and found a streaking K.J. McDaniels for a rim rocking alley-oop to give Clemson back the lead 39-37 and drawing a timeout from the Yellow Jacket bench.
Georgia Tech was ice cold at this point, making one field goal in the final five minutes of the game, but that didn't mean they were out of it. After a pair of Jaron Blossomgame free throws put Clemson up by four, Landry Nnoko committed a silly foul on the offensive boards allowing Marcus Georges-Hunt to convert two free throws to get the Jackets back within two. The next Tiger possession, Rod Hall converted on a circus act layup with the shot clock winding down as the lead was 43-39 with 1:47 remaining.
Georgia Tech immediately went to their only offensive weapon, Daniel Miller, who hit yet another baseline jumper from his spot to bring the lead back down to 2 points. Just to make sure that the acid would completely burn a hole in all of our stomachs, K.J. McDaniels lost the handle on a pass down low to give the ball back to Georgia Tech with a minute remaining and down one possession. Luckily, Georgia Tech gave it right back after an errant pass from Georges-Hunt found the third row of the bleachers.
Clemson would salt 30 more seconds off the clock before Rod Hall missed a driving layup and the Yellow Jackets corralled the rebound and called Timeout with 24 seconds remaining to set up the final play for the tie. Marcus Georges-Hunt went hard to the basket with 6 seconds remaining and threw up a shot contested by K.J. McDaniels that fell short off the front rim. Kammeon Holsey was there for the offensive rebound and missed an open put back before Jaron Blossomgame pulled down his game leading 9th rebound of the game before sinking the final two free throws allowing Clemson to escape with a 45-41 victory.
As we all saw, K.J. McDaniels didn't have his game tonight, scoring only 8 points on 3-14 shooting and missing all 5 of the three-pointers that he took. He would get by with a little help from his friends though as Jordan Roper was the only Tiger in double figures tonight with 12 points on 5-12 shooting. Rod Hall added 6 points getting to the line 8 times, and Landry Nnoko had a solid outing dropping 7 despite some foul trouble.
For the Yellow Jackets, Daniel Miller was the star of the show scoring a game high 18 points on 9-13 shooting. The Redshirt Senior has a fantastic jump shot and tortured the Tigers all day with his keen ability to get open on the pick-and-roll. If Georgia Tech had forced the ball to him on that set more often, this would have been a much different game. Marcus Georges-Hunt added nine points for Georgia Tech on just 1-13 shooting.
Clemson can enjoy their 500th win at Littlejohn Coliseum for now as well as their 15th regular season victory (more than I predicted for the entire year) despite shooting only 31.9% from the field and 15.4 percent from three-point range with the only two threes coming from Jordan Roper. The Tigers will hit the road again this Sunday as they travel to New York to take on the #1 ranked Syracuse Orangeman. Stay tuned to Shakin the Southland for more Clemson Basketball coverage.