3/23 vs. Illinois
Result: 50-49 Victory
Leading Scorer: K.J. McDaniels (12)
Key Stat: Illinois missed their first 11 3-point attempts
- Firstly, I was blown away by the crowd. Despite a tip time conflicting with most church's late services, Clemson fans managed to completely pack Liittlejohn Coliseum. The bargain prices and general admission seating probably helped, but huge kudos to the crowd for showing up and making a difference. When Brownell saw a line of fans on his walk into the arena at 9:30, he said it gave him goosebumps. I was also impressed by the amount of students that were able to make it back just as Spring Break was ending. I had said the tip time may lessen our home court advantage and I was wrong. I underestimated our fans.
- Just before the game, the announcers said whoever knocked down the most 3s would likely pull this one out. They weren't exactly right (Clemson finished with 2 3-pointers, Illinois with 3), but 3-point shot did play a huge role in the game.
- Clemson only shot 11 3-pointers. Illinois missed 18. We lead the nation in 3P% defense (3rd in ACC play), but that stat is somewhat luck-based. Illinois had more than their share of open 3-point attempts in the 1st half and saw all 11 of them clink out. In the second half they found a spark plug off their bench when Jon Ekey hit all 3 of the team's 3-pointers. It was nearly enough to win the game for the Illini.
- Another big swing for the Illinois was the turnover margin. They had 6 in the 1st half and 0 in the 2nd. Clemson finished with 15. .254 of Clemson's possessions ended in turnovers compared to a minuscule .102 for Illinois. Clemson did not have a steal in the game.
- Defensive rebounding was especially good in this one as neither team did anything on the offensive glass. Clemson grabbed .857 of defensive rebounding opportunities (compared to .682 for the season), but only .097 of opportunities on offense. Illinois did just a hair better getting .909 of defensive rebounding opportunities and .143 of offensive rebounding opportunities.
- Adonis Filer had 3 turnovers in 9 minutes and saw his playing time reduced in favor of Ajukwa and Roper who played very well. Rod Hall struggled for most of the game and finished 2-8 with 5 points, 7 turnovers, and a game low offensive rating (Ortg) of 42. Fortunately, he was able to come through in the final sequence which we'll discuss shortly.
- With Jaron Blossomgame out, Brownell elected to start off with a small lineup. Rather than replacing Blossomgame with a forward, he shifted K.J. to the 4 and started Harrison and Roper at the wing. This worked out nicely as Roper came out ready to score. Jordan Roper finished with 10 points, most coming in the first half.
- Missing Blossomgame made it imperative that Landy Nnoko avoid in foul trouble. He played 32 minutes and only committed 2 personal fouls, both in the first half. Nnoko has improved dramatically in this area throughout the season. He has seen his fouls committed per 40 minutes dip in the final stretch of the season. After floating around near 5, his FC/40 is below 4 (3.9) for the first time all year. He had an efficient day finishing on 5 of his 7 field goals and posted a 110 Ortg. He did a great job putting himself in position to catch and score, and the couple times he was a bit further from the basket, he was able to hit hook shots that were well out of his range--or what was his range at the start of the season. In addition to his 11 points, he also finished with 3 blocks. Landry Nnoko is my player of the game.
- Jon Ekey hit his 1st 3-pointer early in the second half. It was immediately followed by a Rayvonte Rice steal and lay-up cutting the lead to 4. With the momentum beginning to shift, Nnoko found Harrison cutting along the baseline for a lay-in. After a defensive stop, Harrison found himself with the ball a few strides behind halfcourt when he spotted K.J. McDaniels alone by the basket. In maybe the most spectacular play of the season, Harrison lobbed it more than halfway across the court and connected with McDaniels in flight for a dunk that rebuild the lead and swung the momentum back to the Tigers.
- Maybe the biggest factor in the Illini's improved second half was the play of the Illini's leading-scorer, Rayvonte Rice. He only scored 2 in the first half, but was more aggressive in attacking the basket and scored 13 in the 2nd. With our smaller lineup, we couldn't (or at least didn't) shift K.J. on him for the majority on the half and he victimized out smaller guards with his strength.
- In the final sequence, K.J. did find himself on Rayvonte Rice as he drove to the basket and attempted a layup with a poor angle. It clinked hard off the backboard. Hall pushed it up the court and found a seam in the defense. To that point he had struggled badly. Undeterred, he beat his defender off the dribble and got to the basket before help arrived. He laid it in to give Clemson a 50-49 lead with 9.3 remaining. Brownell elected to call a timeout and set his defense for the final defensive stand.
- With the game in the balance, Rod Hall was guarding Rayvonte Rice, as he dribbled down the court. Hall matched him stride for stride eventually forcing the pass out to the top where the Tracy Abrams panicked and launched a very deep three that airballed out-of-bounds. With 1.7 left and Harrison passing it in, we were in a familiar situation (Pittsburgh game). Once again, we had trouble in-bounding, but instead of a foolish turnover, Harrison lobbed it past mid-court. It bounced near Landry Nnoko, who only needed to touch the ball to start the clock and ensure the ball would at worst end up under our basket, but he whiffed (and was fouled according to Brownell). Rod Hall then ran baseline and slapped it in-bounds where an Illinois player caught it, but would do nothing so far from the basket. This is exactly the play many wanted (in hindsight) at the end of that Pitt game and we got it here.
- Clemson's 50 point output was the fewest for the Tigers since a 44-57 loss at Syracuse. Illinois' 19 1st half points was their lowest scoring 1st half since their 4th B1G game of the season (at Northwestern). We were fortunate to hold on in this one as Illinois played well in the second half. Jaron Blossomgame would have been great to have, especially on defense against Ekey, but we found a way as we have done so many times this season. Had Illinois sunk a couple of those 11 missed 3s in the 1st half, this one could have been much different. It was also an advantage to be at home against the #2 seed. Nevertheless, in the postseason it's simply about surviving and advancing and now Clemson will do just that as they move on to the 3rd round of the NIT (Elite 8).
- Next up is Belmont on Tuesday. They're a smaller team and Brownell said we will probably play small to help guard their shooters. After posting a 141 Ortg, Roper will likely be in the starting lineup, as Blossomgame has been ruled out. According to Brownell, "Belmont will be more skilled than we will" so we may be in for another tough one in Littlejohn.
- The winner of Tuesday's game will advance to the NIT's Final 4 in New York City. We'll update the NCAA bracket contest shortly, but now I'd like to see your NIT Final 4 predictions. I'll take SMU v. Clemson on one side. The other half is a bit trickier as Minnesota is playing St. Mary's as I write this. The four teams remaining in that quadrant (Minnesota, St. Mary's, Missouri, and Southern Miss) are all in the 60s in KenPom. It's such a toss-up I'll just default to the homes team, Minnesota. In the FSU quadrant, I'll take Louisiana Tech who has already advanced to the Elite 8, while FSU and Georgetown still have to play for that right. Here's a bracket for reference. Be sure to share your thoughts here, as well as what you thought about the final in-bounds play of the game.