Clemson continued their non-conference play on Sunday evening and were in the danger zone. After a 1-2 start, the Tigers had rattled off three straight victories before Rutgers came to town. The projected bottom dwelling B1G team trailed with less than eight minutes to play, but blazed a 16-2 run to erase a second half deficit and beat the Tigers. The loss opened the door for the Tigers to go into a tailspin as they headed into a stretch against three SEC opponents with only a short respite before a extremely challenging opening salvo in ACC play.
Clemson had to sit on that bad loss for a week before the 18th ranked (AP Poll) Arkansas Razorbacks came to Littlejohn Coliseum. The Tigers had revenge on their mind after losing in Arkansas last season when they fell behind early in a showdown between K.J. McDaniels and Michael Qualls. Arkansas staved off the late Clemson rally and won that game 74-68.
McDaniels has moved onto the NBA, but Arkansas still boasts superstar Michael Qualls. The standout Junior entered the contest averaging 14.6 points per game to go along with 4.7 rebounds and was shooting an astonishing 46.7% from three point range. Along with Bobby Portis, Arkansas entered an impressive 6-1 with wins over Wake Forest and SMU (Opponents which Clemson went 1-2 against last season).
Clemson got off to a strong start led by four-star freshman Donte Grantham who scored 12 of his 14 points in the first half. Jordan Roper came off the bench and did what he does best, hit a mid-range jumper and some free throws. He finished with four points in 10 efficient minutes of play. He accounted for 100% of Clemson's bench scoring.
Clemson grabbed a 29-20 lead after a Rod Hall three-pointer, but did not finish the half strong. Arkansas closed the half on a 5-0 run and then scored the first bucket of the second half to make it a one possession game. Clemson had begun to revert back to their sloppy ways with wasted possessions left and right. They'd finish with 14 turnovers - 22% of possessions - for the game.
The offensive struggles allowed Arkansas to take a 57-51 lead with only 78 seconds remaining. It could have been worse, but the Razorbacks were having a below average shooting night, hitting just 28.6% (6-21) from three rather than their usual 40%+. At this point, you could sense the crowd ready to put the jackets on and leave with another wasted Clemson possession.
Rod Hall would then score 11 of his team-high 19 points in the last 5:56 and emerge as the leader and go-to guy we have practically been begging he or Landry Nnoko become. It was an unlikely and exciting turn of events that dramatically altered the outlook of the Tigers' season.
Following Bobby Portis's bucket to put Arkansas up six, Rod Hall countered with a basket in traffic to trim the deficit to four. Clemson then went into full court press and - guess who - Rod Hall came up with a steal and a quick basket. Suddenly it was a two point game with 45 seconds remaining. With 16 ticks left, Grantham came up with the steal that led to a Jaron Blossomgame lay-up to tie the game.
In overtime, Clemson won the tip and immediately it was clear, Brownell wanted Rod Hall with the ball and if at all possible, taking the shot. In an isolation he drilled a three-pointer from the top of the key to give Clemson their first lead since early in the second half. Clemson would then come up with a defensive stop and a Landry Nnoko bucket to take a five point lead. From there, they hung on with the help of four Rod Hall free throws and a Jaron Blossomgame slam dunk coming from quite possibly the best pass of Landry Nnoko's career.
The win over #18 Arkansas is just Clemson's second win over a ranked opponent in the non-conference schedule since Oliver Purnell was named head coach way back in 2002-03. Clemson hasn't beat a ranked opponent in Littlejohn Coliseum during non-conference play since 1997. It is good enough to erase some of the tarnish from three very ugly losses and it could be the turning point in the season as the moment Rod Hall emerged as Clemson's go-to player. Rod Hall played with great efficiency posting a gaudy 147 Ortg, shooting 66.7% from two and from three and knocking down 5-6 free throws including 4-4 in OT. If he is able to maintain this level of play Clemson will look much more like the team that is 2-0 vs. the SEC than the team that is 1-2 vs. the Big South.
Jaron Blossomgame was a major part of the action. He looks more athletic this season - likely due to a full recovery from his leg injuries. He finished with 17 points and 8 rebounds. He was an excellent 7-9 from two and came up with multiple big plays, however he was 0-3 from three, 3-6 from the FT line, and committed six turnovers. He has improved from a season ago and now needs to learn to play within his game. He is 2-19 from three this year and was 10-50 from three last year. It's now fair, with a sample of 69 shots, to hope Brad Brownell has him be more selective from range.
Nnoko did not emerge as Clemson's key guy - that was Rod Hall - but he looked much better than he had. Most notably he finished with 4 assists and only 1 turnover, whereas he had been averaging over 3 turnovers per game. He was 4-8 with 8 points, which at this point may be all we get from Nnoko as a junior. While we were hoping for more, if he plays efficiently at that usage level and Rod Hall can continue being Clemson's primary guy with help coming from Donte Grantham and Demarcus Harrison on the wing, then the Tigers will be fine.
Clemson's defense has stolen the ball on less than 7% of their opponents possessions this season, but their defense was closer to the form we've become accustomed to from a season ago. They ended 11% of Arkansas' possessions with a steal and with only 63 possessions in a game that included a five minute OT, they were back to the slower tempo that we've also grown used to. A much better defensive effort (the first time Arkansas has been held under 77), a slower tempo, a touch of lucky three-point defense, and an unbelievable clutch performance - especially by Rod Hall - gave Clemson their first very good win of the season.
The win improved the Tigers' record to 5-3 with Auburn coming to LJC next Sunday. KenPom gives Clemson better than a three-in-four chance to win each of their remaining non-conference games, save South Carolina. The Gamecocks beat Oklahoma State in the SEC/Big12 Challenge and will be a very tough opponent for the Tigers, but should they mimic their football counterparts and beat the Midland Poultry, their non-conference accomplishments will not be nearly as bad as previously thought and their NIT hopes will be in good standing.
Enjoy the marquee win and check back for more coverage of the past week's basketball action and the upcoming bowl game against the Oklahoma Sooners!