It's good to be home. After running the gauntlet and playing 5-of-6 games on the road, the Clemson Tigers (15-9) (6-6) returned to Littlejohn Coliseum (if one more commentator does an impression of the rapper after saying this I will come through the television and strangle them) where they held a 10-1 record this season to take on the 17th ranked Virginia Cavaliers (21-5) (12-1). The recipe for a great ACC battle came together perfectly for the Saturday matinee between the Tigers and Cavaliers. Take the #1 defensive team in the country looking to break a four game losing streak in Clemson, and add the #2 defensive team in the country coming off back to back losses and desperately searching for a quality win to strengthen their NCAA tournament resume, and you get two teams willing to scratch their way for a full 40 minutes looking for a much needed victory.
From the get go it was clear that Clemson was going to have an uphill battle as we learned that the Tigers starting Center, Sophomore Landry Nnoko, would miss the game with flu like symptoms. It was a bigger blow than most would think since the Clemson offense has stumbled the past couple of games where Nnoko has gotten into foul trouble, and they were facing off against the #1 rebounding team in the ACC. While Clemson is VERY thin at the Center position, they did receive some good news that Freshman Sidy Djitte was available after missing the Notre Dame game with an ankle injury.
In his place, getting the third start of his career was reserve Sophomore Josh Smith. Brad Brownell also made another change in the starting lineup and Sophomore Guard Adonis Filer appears to have played his way out of the starting lineup and Junior Damarcus Harrison earned his first start since the North Carolina debacle that is better left unmentioned.
The game between the #1 and #2 ranked defenses would start just like you would expect it to...with scoring spurts from both teams. Clemson would start 6-of-6 from the field and would spread the points around. McDaniels and Blossomgame added 4 points each while Damarcus Harrison calmly nailed a jumper off the dribble from the top of the key.
Clemson's red hot start was answered by Cavalier Sophomore Center Mike Tobey as he scored Virginia's first six points exploiting the Tigers weakness down low and hitting a couple of mid-range jumpers in the process as the Tigers took a 12-6 lead into the first media timeout.
After the television timeout, Clemson started to key on Tobey and the Virginia jumpers started to fall. Justin Anderson, Anthony Gill and Darion Atkins would hit consecutive jumpers to show that Virginia wasn't just a one trick pony. Clemson would keep the lead at 6 by getting to the foul line as Harrison and McDaniels would convert on 4-of-4 free throw attempts. Clemson would make a jab early with 8:33 remaining in the half as Damarcus Harrison took a feed from Rod Hall and buried a 3-pointer to extend the Clemson lead to 21-14.
Virginia didn't even stagger. They would answer with a 12-0 run triggered by sharpshooting Senior Joe Harris who immediately responded to the Harrison 3-pointer by driving or an open layup, and would continue by nailing 2 3-pointers of his own. Before you could blink, Clemson hadn't scored in 6 minutes and Virginia had taken its first lead of the ballgame as an Anthony Gill jumper finished off the spurt to put the Cavaliers up 26-21.
Jordan Roper would stop the bleeding with a hail Mary mid-range jumper from the left side that found the netting off the backboard. Virginia would continue the 3-point onslaught as this time Malcolm Brogdon nailed another to extend the Cavalier lead to 6. At this point, K.J. McDaniels decided that enough was enough and he needed to step in before things got out of hand.
McDaniels would drive to the basket and get fouled while throwing up a jump shot that rattled in. The refs would count the basket (although I have to admit, I don't necessarily agree, I thought the foul came on the ground) and McDaniels would nail the free throw. After a Virginia turnover, McDaniels would hit another jumper for a quick 5 points spurt to get the Tigers back in the game. The half would end with a Mike Tobey tip in to send Virginia to the locker room with the lead 31-28.
Taking a look at the first half, Nnoko's presence was certainly missed. Although their weren't many rebounding opportunities with both teams shooting well over 50% at the half, Clemson had only managed 5 rebounds to Virginia's 12. While Smith and Djitte were playing serviceable offense, they were both still playing hesitantly.
The second half started out disastrously for the Tigers. After Damarcus Harrison perfectly fed a wide open Josh Smith on the pick and roll for an easy layup, he came up limping and immediately headed for the locker room to have his ankle examined. On the very next defensive possession, Rod Hall would reach for a loose ball and come up grabbing his shoulder and would have to leave the game as well. (Both would return)
With Harrison and Hall both heading to the bench, Freshman Austin Ajukwa introduced himself to the Clemson Tiger faithful. Ajukwa calmly took the first pass that he saw and nailed a 3-pointer to put Clemson back in the lead 33-31.
During the halftime break, both team seemed to sit down and remember what made them so successful this year as the defensive intensity and play was significantly upgraded in the second half. In fact, with 11:48 remaining in the game Justin Anderson would make 1-of-2 free throws as the score would be 38-37 in favor of Clemson.
Clemson made a quick burst to the finish line. McDaniels would hit 1-of-2 free throws before Joe Harris missed a 3 on the other end. The long rebound came to McDaniels who pushed down the court for a 2-on-1 break with Ajukwa. After feeding it to Ajukwa, Austin threw it over his back shoulder as McDaniels was simply hanging in mid-air to throw down a thunderous dunk. McDaniels landed and pumped his fists in the air after extending the Clemson lead to 4. A pair of Adonis Filer free throws would extend the lead to 43-37 with 10:07 to play.
Unfortunately, Clemson would pick another bad spot to go cold. They would go another 4:30 without scoring as Virginia rattled off another 8-0 run with another Joe Harris 3-pointer. Virginia would call timeout with Josh Smith on the line with 5:37 to go now with the lead 45-43. Smith would end the run by making the second free throw and Clemson would look to score again. Virginia would immediately go back to Mike Tobey who made back to back driving layups to answer a pair of free throws by McDaniels and a Rod Hall jumper to cut the lead back down to 1.
Joe Harris would then throw a haymaker by burying his 4th 3-pointer of the game to extend the Cavalier lead to 6. McDaniels would single handedly keep the Tigers alive by knocking down 4 consecutive free throws, but Anthony Gill drove into the layup and converted on a layup while being fouled by Josh Smith.
After a Joe Harris jumper gave UVA a 57-52 lead with 2:03 to play, Austin Ajukwa would once again give the Tigers some life as he nailed a three off of a K.J. McDaniels pass to cut the lead to 2. After 91% free throw shooter Malcolm Brogdon knocked down a pair of free throws, McDaniels would pull up from five feet beyond the ark after a Joe Harris miss to bring the score down to 59-58 with just 23 seconds remaining. The inbound pass found Brogdon who calmly converted on 2 free throws before Clemson called timeout with 13 seconds remaining and one shot to tie it.
After a batted down inbound attempt, Ajukwa in-bounded to Roper who fired a wild off balance 3-pointer which didn't even find the iron. Malcolm Brogdon would bring down the rebound and be fouled by McDaniels (his 5th of the night) and buried his 5th and 6th consecutive free throws to put the icing on the cake as Virginia walked away from Littlejohn Coliseum with a 63-58 victory.
Once again for Clemson, it was a 1 man show as K.J. McDaniels finished with 24 points on 6-of-13 shooting and converting on 11-of-13 free throw attempts. The next closest Tiger in scoring was Damarcus Harrison who managed only 7. Clemson did manage to convert on 42.9 percent of their field goals, but were held to only 4 offensive rebounds by the tough rebounding Cavaliers and were out rebounded by a total of 33-20.
Virginia was led by Joe Harris who scored 16 points on 6-of-15 shooting including 4-of-9 from behind the 3-point line. Mike Tobey would add 14 on a remarkable 7-of-9 shooting and Malcolm Brogdon would match him with 14 points of his own. Anthony Gill would round out the Cavaliers in double figures by dropping 12 points on a perfect 4-of-4 shooting.
Clemson will look to end its current 3 game losing streak as the North Carolina State Wolfpack travel to Clemson to take on the Tigers on Tuesday night at 7pm. Stay tuned to Shakin the Southland for more Clemson Basketball coverage.