The Clemson Tigers (23-12) will make a brand new start out of the 2013-14 basketball season in old New York as the Tigers advanced to the semi-finals of the NIT with a 73-68 come from behind victory over the Belmont Bruins (26-10).
The Tigers rounded out their season at Littlejohn Coliseum where they finished an astonishing 16-3 including 6 wins in ACC play. In order to get that 16th win, Clemson would have to get past the Bruins. Belmont is a team that has advanced to the NCAA Tournament each of the past 3 years and looked poised for its 4th in a row before getting stunned by Eastern Kentucky in the OVC finals and being forced to settle with an automatic bid to the NIT.
Clemson would have to advance without a key rebounder and defensive weapon Jaron Blossomgame who suffered a hairline fracture in this left shin in the opening round of the NIT against Georgia State. Clemson would choose to go small in defending one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the country as Jordan Roper would start alongside Rod Hall, Damarcus Harrison, K.J. McDaniels and Landry Nnoko.
All fans were in for a real treat in this game as both teams were fired up from the get go. As the ref threw the ball in the air and the first couple minutes played out, I saw 2 rabid dogs fighting over the last piece of raw meat. Jordan Roper made his presence in the starting line-up felt from the opening tip as Clemson took the first possession and Roper took a feed from McDaniels and buried the first 3-pointer he took. McDaniels added a fast break dunk for a quick 5-0 spurt to start the game for the Tigers.
Belmont and the Ohio Valley Conference player of the year would answer with a 6-0 run of their own with 4 points coming from aforementioned J.J. Mann. The teams would trade jabs back and forth before the Bruins began to find the 3-point shooting touch that they are so known for. Reece Chamberlain and Craig Bradshaw would hit 3's separated by a J.J. Mann jumper to give Belmont an 18-13 lead with 10:46 remaining in the half.
Clemson would turn up the defense and answer with a 22-5 run of their own. Adonis Filer gave Clemson the lead back 20-18 with a 3-pointer from the wing with 9:23 remaining as the run concluded with 7 consecutive points from seldom used reserve Ibrahim Djambo as he hit a 3-pointer from the corner and another while being fouled as he stepped to the line and hit the free throw to extend the Tiger lead 35-23 with 2:23 remaining in the half.
Clemson had their chance to put the game away before the half, but the Bruins didn't win 26 games this year by giving up before the half. They finished on an 8-2 counter run in the last two minutes of the half with back-to-back 3-pointers from Blake Jenkins and Reece Chamberlain nailed one as time expired to send Clemson to the locker room at the half with a 37-31 lead.
Jordan Roper was the Tigers saving grace with 12 first half points as his speed was just too much for the Bruins to defend. Clemson was clearly missing Blossomgame on the glass as the Bruins corralled 11 offensive rebounds, but luckily were not able to convert on many of their 2nd chance opportunities.
After ending the half on an 8-2 run, things went from bad to worse for the Tigers out of the tunnel. The run was extended to 16-2 as Belmont came out with a quick scripted play to Mann for an easy layup and Drew Windler and Craig Bradshaw hit back-to-back 3-pointers to reclaim the lead for Belmont 39-37 after trailing by as many as 12 points in the first half.
K.J. McDaniels would answer the run with a 3-pointer of his own, but Bradshaw and the Bruins just couldn't be stopped as he hit another 3, and Belmont would go on ANOTHER 8-2 run. Drew Windler's 2nd 3-pointer of the night stretched the Bruin lead to 47-42. McDaniels would bring Clemson back within striking distance in trademark fashion with his stingy play around the rim. The 2 teams would ride the see-saw until Damarcus Harrison came up big.
Harrison would nail his 1st 3-pointer to tie the game at 58 a piece with 7:17 remaining in the game. Belmont would answer with a quick 5-0 run as Craig Bradshaw put the Bruins back up by 5 with another 3-pointer. Harrison answered by nailing his 2nd 3-pointer, but Bradshaw answered right back with 1 of his own. That would be Belmont's last made field goal of the night as Clemson tightened up its defense with less than 3 minutes to play.
Rod Hall picked a fantastic time for his first field goal of the night as he drove down the court after the Bradshaw 3 and converted on a layup while being fouled. The free throw pulled Clemson back within 2 before the next possession when Damarcus Harrison would hit his 3rd 3-pointer in under 5 minutes to reclaim the lead for the Tigers 67-66 with 2:44 remaining in the game.
J.J. Mann would convert on 2 free throws on the other end of the court before Harrison provided the play of the game. Spinning out of a double team at the elbow, the Junior raised up and calmly drilled a mid-range jumper to once again reclaim the lead. The Bruins went back to Bradshaw who missed a 3-pointer, and turned the ball over after another offensive rebound.
At the end of the game, it has become accustomed to give the ball to Rod Hall and watch him produce. With 1:18 remaining and Clemson up by 1, Rod Hall attacked from the perimeter and somehow managed to avoid Blake Jenkins who was perfectly set up to take the charge, to give Clemson a 3 point lead. Landry Nnoko and Damarcus Harrison would split free throws down the line as Belmont couldn't hit the 3-pointers when they counted as Clemson added yet another come from behind win to their resume and advanced to Madison Square Garden with a 73-68 win.
Damarcus Harrison and K.J. McDaniels led the scoring for Clemson with 16 points each as Roper added 12 as the only other Tiger in double figures. While McDaniels spread out his scoring, Roper and McDaniels added the much needed supporting baskets. Roper's 12 points all came in the 1st half, while 14 of Harrison's 16 points came in the 2nd half and his late barrage of 3's sealed the win for the Tigers. Clemson shot 48.2% from the field and 10-of-21 from behind the 3-point line (47.6%). Belmont didn't have a bench player play for more than 5 minutes and as a result, Clemson won the battle of the benches 19-0. The presence of Jaron Blossomgame was surely felt as Clemson was crushed on the boards 41-32.
Belmont was a 2-headed monster tonight lead by a game high 21 points from Craig Bradshaw shooting 7-of-22 with 5 made 3 pointers. The Ohio Valley Conference player of the year wasn't going to be outshined as he added 20 points of his own on 7-of-17 shooting. Blake Jenkins also provided a very solid game with 13 points on 6-of-10 shooting and grabbing 8 rebounds. The Bruins shot 38.7% from the field and 12-of-32 from behind the arc (37.5%).
Clemson will meet the winner of tomorrow night's quarterfinal matchup between top seeded SMU and #2 seeded California on Tuesday night in New York City at either 7pm or 9pm. Stay tuned for all of your NIT Semi-Final coverage from Shaking the Southland.