It is really remarkable when you consider where Georgia Tech is located and some of the talent that has rolled through that program that Clemson has been able to win nine straight games vs. the Yellow Jackets. Things were looking dicey in the first half as Daniel Miller was once again killing the Tigers with his face up game and his power around the rim. Meanwhile, the Tigers were looking like the team that lost to Auburn with some bad turnovers and a slew of missed shots. K.J. was struggling to get into a rhythm once again and the team was staring down a loss that most likely would destroy any chance at the NCAA tourney.
After Daniel Miller blocked Landry Nnoko's shot to end the first half, Brownell and staff got into the locker room and no doubt had one message for the team, ramp it up on defense. The best way to deal with a team looking to pound you in the post is to harass the perimeter guys where they can't see the angles and enter the ball on time. After GT opened up with a nice set play to Miller for an easy two, the Tigers effectively took him out of the game by forcing his catches away from the paint and putting heavy ball pressure on the Tech guards. You could see Tech wearing down as the half went on and committing some really bad turnovers that helped Clemson get out on the break and generate some easy scores. This was pivotal because scoring the half court was not easy for either team once again and it came down to who could find some easy baskets. Fortunately it was Clemson who was able to find them.
Wearing GT down with the defense also helped on the other end of the floor as GT began making some critical mistakes in rotations that allowed for Harrison to get free for a wide open 3-pointer and eventually a back breaking dunk from Nnoko on the screen/roll action (sweet feed from Hall on that one). All Brian Gregory could do at that point was call timeout and angrily throw the ball back at an official before berating Robert Carter, Jr. All in all, the second half was a clinic on Brad Brownell basketball at Clemson. The defense was stellar and the offense was efficient. If not for a few rimmed out shots that were excellent looks, Clemson probably would have put this to bed before the 2:00 minute mark. Let's look at the Tigers who played and what they gave us today.
Rod Hall: Hall had a quiet first half and was certainly not the force he was against NCSU. Some of this was due to GT having powerfully built guards to throw at him like Golden, not to mention a guy like Miller to protect the rim. Clemson countered by using Miller's man to screen up top and draw him away from the basket. Hall did a nice job making reads off of this, especially down the stretch when he had assists to Harrison and to Nnoko. He had some tough luck with some rim outs on good looks but overall it was a solid effort and an excellent 6-to-0 assist to turnover ratio. His play down the stretch is what we have to have from our point guard to make a run at the Dance.
Damarcus Harrison: I asked for Harrison to hit the consistency button and he looks like he's trying to do just that. Harrison put together his second straight outstanding game with timely perimeter shooting and stingy defense. He is responding like a veteran should after it looked like Ajukwa might take his minutes just a week or so back. His two 3-pointers were absolutely huge during that pivotal stretch between the 8 and 5 minute marks of the second half when the game was up for grabs. His steal and eventual layup and 1 was a dagger to GT's fleeting hopes of pulling the game out. He has started to flash some of that athleticism that made him a pretty highly regarded target out of high school. Harrison finished up with 15 points with 3-4 shooting from 3.
Jaron Blossomgame: Jaron had pedestrian numbers, especially on offense where he scored just 2 points, but was an active part of the Tiger defense that ended up dominating points in the paint.. When you factor in the good work from Josh Smith, the Tigers ended up with 6 points and 9 rebounds from the 4 spot. That isn't great, but it wasn't terrible either. The best news was we didn't see some of the defensive breakdowns out of Blossomgame that has plagued him from time to time.
Landry Nnoko: Don't look now but it looks like Landry Nnoko is becoming more than a passing thought as a post scorer. Landry showed nice touch with both a right hand half hook and left hand half hook and finished with 13 points, 6 boards, and a block. He was able to just about break even with Daniel Miller in that match-up which was crucial. Needless to say, any time we get double figure scoring out of our 5 man we are in good shape. Sidy Djitte was even able to flash the baby hook down low in his short stint to rest Nnoko. Clemson fans should feel good about the potential growth of these two guys going forward.
K.J. McDaniels: What can you say about this guy that hasn't already been said? He simply finds ways to make a huge impact on the game. He had a poor night from the 3, but like a great player he doesn't let his jump shot going in effect his effort level and contribution in other areas. He had four big steals, two of which were part of the run that got Clemson out of the first half deficit that he finished with acrobatic layups. He had a couple of big assists as well, one to Harrison for a three and one to Nnoko for a nice lefty finish, that helped keep the Tigers in front once they had taken the lead. In true K.J. fashion, he put together two ridiculous blocks (one was a total BS foul call when he stuffed Miller's dunk attempt). The first was a straight windex job from behind that ricocheted to Miller who thought he could just go up and dunk it. K.J. rose again and sent that the other way as well. He makes teams pay when they foul him and went 4-4 from the line today. In the end, just your usual 16 points, five boards, four steals, and 2 (should have been 3) blocks to go with 2 assists. BAMF (you do the math on that acronym).
BENCH: The bench was short today with really only three guys playing any kind of minutes, but the contribution was excellent. Adonis Filer was giving his usual top shelf effort on defense and attacked on offense. He made mistakes as he usually does and turned it over once on a poor decision, but that was his only one and it was a full speed mistake, so as a coach you can live with that a bit. He wasn't able to capitalize on his three point looks but I thought his shot selection was good on those. He made it possible to rest Hall for a few stretches and that was probably a key in Hall being so good down the stretch. That's doing your job as the backup point.
Josh Smith did what we need Josh Smith to do: rebound and make 2-footers. His energy was very good and he was a big part of the Tigers not letting GT off the mat once we got the lead. He simply whipped Daniel Miller to the ball on a missed FT that he put back in. Those plays are just huge in games like this because who knows if GT gets the stop there and scores on the other end what might have occurred.
Sidy Djitte didn't have to play that much thanks to Landry staying out of foul trouble, but he was productive in his minutes. He didn't panic when Miller didn't bite on the up and under move and was able to pivot back to his right hand and score. He also got a nice steal on a post entry attempt. If we can use him for 6 to 8 minutes a game as opposed to 12-15, that is a good thing for Clemson at this stage of his development.
Jordan Roper made a cameo appearance in the game but didn't really play enough to judge him. Right now it seems he's the odd man out as Filer and Harrison have stepped up their games. To me, Filer just seems to play with a better motor and Roper's edge on offense isn't big enough to overcome that. Harrison being able to score makes him the no brainer choice for the 2 spot because 6'4" trumps 5'11" all day every day at this level. We will likely need Jordan at some point down the line and he's capable as we have seen. Let's hope he keeps his head in the game and is ready when the time comes.
Overall, you have to be thrilled with how the Tigers responded in the second half. Road wins in this league are solid gold and I don't care where you get them. Clemson's pressure on the ball all but eliminated GT's ability to get the ball to Miller in the paint. This was a major problem in the Pitt and UNC disasters when we were getting shredded inside. GT made a floater here and a runner there, but they weren't going to beat us on those type of plays. It is akin to GT's football team hitting some out route passes when you are stuffing their dive and pitch play. They might hurt you some but it won't be enough to beat you in the long run. Now the Tigers turn their attention to the last road trip of the regular season to face a reeling Wake Forest team who got boat raced by UNC today. A win there would be a record for road victories by a Tiger hoops team, which is amazing considering this team in comparison with the best squads under Foster, Ellis, Barnes, and Purnell.
KenPom gives Clemson a 59% chance to win in Winston-Salem, but the Deacons may have "called it quits" after their 7th straight loss for Coach Bzdelik who is almost definitely gone after this season.