The Clemson Tigers (13-4) took the court at Littlejohn Coliseum Saturday afternoon against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons (12-6) looking for their third consecutive ACC victory. Clemson came into the contest winning the previous four matchups between the two teams and looked to solidify their spot in the upper portion of the Atlantic Coast Conference in early season play.
Clemson garnered high praise from the commentators at the beginning of the contest as it was mentioned that Clemson was "shocking the analysts" and putting them in the top tier of the ACC and even mentioning Brad Brownell as an early season Coach of the Year candidate. Over the top praise such as this can be hard to live up to. Today, Clemson was looking at a rarity, a starting five with more youth than the Tigers. The Wake Forest starting five consisted of four sophomores and one Senior. Clemson countered with what looks to be developing into their regular ACC starting five, consisting of K.J. McDaniels, Rod Hall, Jordan Roper, Jaron Blossomgame and Landry Nnoko.
In what is becoming typical fashion in Clemson basketball games, the first five minutes of the ball game consisted of Clemson attempting to find its offense, and the opponent realizing just how stingy the Clemson defense really is. Tyler Cavanaugh got the scoring started with a three pointer at the 17:22 mark to put the Demon Deacons on the board.
Wake Forests strategy was pretty clear from the get go, they wanted to keep Clemson out of the paint and force the Tigers to beat them with the jump shot. Rod Hall scored Clemson's first points driving into the lane into a crowd of four Demon Deacons, drawing the foul and converting both free throws.
Wake Forest would covert on two trips down the court to go into the first television timeout up 7-2. In the first five minutes of the game, the Tigers started 0-3 from the field with two turnovers. After a pair of Jordan Roper free throws, Ibrahim Djambo pulled up from the top of the arc and nailed a three for the Tigers first field goal of the contest to tie the score at 7 with 14:27 to play.
With the score tied at 7, the remainder of the first half was officially a ride on the seesaw with neither team putting together a significant run or holding a lead above four points.
After a Devin Thomas layup put Wake Forest up 14-11, Clemson would go on the only run of the first half with a 6-0 spurt started by a Josh Smith jumper with 7:06 to play. Damarcus Harrison and K.J. McDaniels would convert four consecutive free throws to put Clemson up by three. What impressed me about Wake Forest all day was their ability to answer. Codi Miller-McIntyre ended the run with a layup, and after Jordan Roper scored another bucket to Clemson in an attempt to pull away, Miller-McIntyre would hit a jumper again to stop the bleeding and pull Wake Forest within one.
The teams would go into halftime with Clemson leading 26-25. While Wake Forest was hanging around, Clemson had to be thrilled about going into halftime with the lead. Leading scorer K.J. McDaniels didn't score his first points until his free throws with 6:10 remaining. Clemson shot 6-20 from the field and 1-6 from behind the three point line to go along with seven turnovers. Clemson managed to hang into the lead by converting on 13 of 14 free throw attempts.
At the half, Wake Forest was dominating the interior play. Clemson lead the rebounding battle at halftime 20 to 15 solely due to K.J. McDaniels storming the boards to make up for his offensive output. Even with the rebounding advantage, Wake Forest held a 12-2 points in the paint lead and was dominating Clemson with backdoor cuts in the paint. Landry Nnoko and Sidy Djitte were both in early foul trouble forcing Jaron Blossomgame to guard the 4 position where he was just overmatched.
I would love to know what goes on in that locker room during halftime because once again, Brad Brownell was able to turn Mr. Hyde back into Dr. Jekyll. Jordan Roper came out on fire driving to the basket and converting two layups and hitting a three pointer from the corner with 16:51 to spark the stagnant Tiger offense. The only problem was, once again, Wake Forest responded to every Tiger bucket. While Roper was getting hot, Tyler Cavanaugh was matching him step for step scoring 5 points in a row after a bucket and a foul put Wake forest back up by 2.
K.J. McDaniels finally got his offense going staring a spurt that would give the Tigers their largest lead of the game at 5 with a layup, but Wake answered once again with Cavanaugh and Thomas converting on the other end.
After Landry Nnoko traded back to back buckets with Coron Williams and Arnaud William Adala Moto, Brownell would call timeout to prepare Clemson for the final push. McDaniels would give the Tigers the separation they needed with a beautiful hook shot and layup to push the lead to 47-41.
After another pair of Adala Moto free throws, Clemson got the knockout punch that it needed when Ibrahim Djambo squared up and hit his second three pointer of the night to put Clemson ahead 52-45 with 4:39 remaining. Clemson would salt away the rest of the game with McDaniels adding an explanation point with a rim rocking dunk to finish off the Demon Deacons.
K.J. McDaniels lead the tigers in scoring and rebounding with 15 points and a career high 12 rebounds on 6 of 11 shooting. Jordan Roper was the only other Tiger in double figures finishing with 11. Adonis Filer put in a solid effort for the Tigers finishing with 8 points, 3 rebounds and 2 steals.
Tonight's kudos from me goes out to Josh Smith. With Landry Nnoko and Sidy Djitte in foul trouble, Smith came in and played phenomenal defense during long stretches of the game. His offensive game is far from polished, but I have seen his defensive game improve 10 fold from the beginning of the season.
Coming off a career game, Jaron Blossomgame appeared to be trigger shy tonight, scoring only 2 points on 1-3 shooting. He did have a match up problem tonight, but didn't seem to look for the ball and hesitated on a couple of open threes throughout the game.
The Tigers will take to the road in 5 of their next 6 games and will find out just how good they really are. Clemson will travel to #22 Pitt on Tuesday night before traveling to North Carolina and Florida State, and then returning home for a matchup against Georgia Tech. The grueling stretch ends with trips to #2 Syracuse and South Bend. Stay tuned for more Clemson basketball coverage.