Welcome to the Big Apple where hopefuls come to grab the limelight, stars come out to shine, and a team can grab an opportunity out from under your nose in a second. It's the semi-finals of the NIT as the #3 Seed Clemson Tiers (23-13) took on the #1 seeded SMU Mustangs for the right to play for the NIT Championship on Thursday night.
This match-up featured two up and coming teams looking to make their presence known right now rather than wait for next season. With their Quarterfinal win over Belmont, the Tigers had matched a school record in terms of improvement from one season to another going from 13 wins to 23 wins. The only other team in Clemson history to have a 10 win turnaround from one season to the next was the 1938-39 Tigers.
On the other end of the court, was the top seeded SMU Mustangs coached by legendary Hall of Famer Larry Brown. Coach Brown has quickly turned the Mustangs into a force to be reckoned with in the NCAA as they were viewed as the last team out of the NCAA tournament bubble, a team that many felt deserved to receive an at-large bid to the big dance.
One of the headlines coming into the semi-final match-up this week was the quote by Mustang guard Ryan Manual that the Tigers were "challenged to score offensively." I personally thought the quote was overblown a little bit, but from the tip-off, the Tigers seemed to take it to heart.
Clemson started the game on a 7-0 run with a 3-pointer from Rod Hall on the first possession followed by jumpers from K.J. McDaniels and Landry Nnoko. On the other hand, SMU couldn't seem to connect on any of their passes as 3 consecutive passes found the seats and prompted a Larry Brown timeout.
After a Jordan Roper 3 put the Tigers up 10-2, the Mustangs settled down and countered with a 7-0 run of their own starting with a 3-pointer from Nick Russell and then Markus Kennedy started to heat up getting to the basket for 2 consecutive layups. Clemson was doubling the on-ball screens and SMU was quickly countering by finding the open man and making the Tigers pay for their early offense.
Of course, nobody can turn the momentum of the game around like K.J. McDaniels. After Rod Hall completed a 3-point play the old fashion way to put Clemson back on top 16-13 with 13:02 remaining in the half, McDaniels came from the help side on defense and not only blocked a Yanick Moreira layup attempt, he flat out caught it with one hand.
Just like that, in a game of runs that saw Clemson open with a 10-2 run and SMU counter with an 11-3 run, the Tigers took McDaniels momentum on the defensive end and turned it into another offensive run, this time with their 3-point shooting. After making a season high 10 3-pointers in their Quarterfinal win over Belmont, Clemson started to heat up from behind the 3-point line again.
Rod Hall would start the scoring with his 2nd 3-pointer from the corner and Damarcus Harrison would find his shot from behind the NBA line to spur Clemson on a 13-5 run. Harrison would end the half by squaring up off a pass from Rod Hall with 6 seconds remaining and nailing another NBA 3-pointer to send Clemson into the locker room with a 38-26 lead.
With K.J. McDaniels playing a big impact on the defensive side of the ball, the role players were scoring the points as McDaniels ended the half with 5, but Rod Hall lead the half in scoring with 11 and Damarcus Harrison followed with 10.
With a tremendous first half in the books, the Tigers had to know that SMU has gotten to this point by coming from behind. The Mustangs had trailed by 8 points or more in all of their NIT Tournament games before coming away with victories. If Clemson wasn't aware of it, SMU quickly reminded them.
K.J. McDaniels hit a quick 3-pointer to extend the lead to 13, but the Tigers, who dominated the first half on both ends of the ball, had come out stagnant. From then on out, the game was completely 1 sided. After the McDaniels 3-pointer, Clemson went on a 4+ minute scoring drought as Sterling Brown and Markus Kennedy began to dominate the interior.
The scoring drought would end for the Tigers after Jordan Roper, with the shot clock winding down, drove the lane and converted on a layup that gave the Tigers a little more breathing room extending the lead to 43-35 with 15:25 remaining in the game.
That shot didn't give the Tigers the boost of energy that they needed as the offense continued to struggle. After the Roper basket, Clemson went an additional 5+ minutes without making a field goal. On the other end, SMU was having their way in the paint with the Tigers. With 10:30 remaining in the game, Nick Russell spotted up and nailed a 3-pointer that erased a 13 point deficit, and the game started over tied at 45-45.
Clemson, who is very familiar to the grind it down game, began to show the resiliency that got them to New York City to begin with. The next 3 possessions down the court, Clemson would go inside to Nnoko who converted on 2 layups and Rod Hall pulled up and nailed a huge 3-pointer with 8:26 remaining in the half, but SMU had an answer underneath for every basket to stay neck and neck with the surging Tigers.
After K.J. McDaniels converted on 1-of-2 free throws, Nic Moore nailed a jumper to tie the game at 53-53. Clemson would turn the ball over on the next possession and Markus Kennedy would get fouled in transition going to the basket, and his free throws gave the Mustangs their first lead of the ball game with 5:09 remaining.
With the way Clemson was playing offensively and the way that the Mustangs had tightened up on the defensive end, you knew that it wasn't meant to be tonight. After Landry Nnoko's layup with 7:01 remaining, Clemson would not score another field goal until a K.J. McDaniels dunk with 21 seconds remaining as SMU hit their free throws down the stretch and sent the Tigers home early with a 65-59 victory.
So what happened in the second half? Unfortunately, because of the success that the Tigers had shooting the ball in the first half, they fell in love with the jump shot, especially the 3-point shot. After shooting 6-of-9 in the first half, Clemson shot just 2-of-11 from behind the arc in the second half, many of them rushed shots. This resulted in field goal droughts of 3:38, 5:17 and 6:40 all in the 2nd half.
A presence that was sorely missed tonight was that of Jaron Blossomgame as the Tigers were once again outrebounded 34-26, with many of them offensively by the Mustangs leading to 2nd chance points that allowed them to erase the lead. SMU grabbed 44.8% of their offensive rebounding opportunities compared to just 29.0% for the Tigers. Additionally, Clemson grabbed 55.2% of their defensive rebounding opportunities compared to 71.0% for SMU.
Clemson just wasn't able to match the Mustangs intensity in the second half and it was noticeably to everybody who was watching, including Coach Larry Brown. When asked after the game what he said to his team at halftime when they trailed by 12 points, he simply put that "They are playing harder than you." The extra effort on both ends of the court held the Tigers to below 25% shooting for the half before ending up at exactly 40% from the floor for the night. The offense grew stagnant as they seemed to stand at the top of the key burning shot clock before soft ball screens failed to open up any offense and possessions ended in rushed jumpers.
Rod Hall was the Tigers leading scorer tonight with 18 points on 4-of-9 shooting and 3-of-4 shooting from 3-point range. He led all Tiger starters with a 130 Ortg. K.J. McDaniels finished the day with 11 points on 4-of-11 shooting and grabbed a team high 7 rebounds. He also added 3 assists and 3 blocks to the stat sheet tonight. Landry Nnoko added 10 points and 5 rebounds of his own but was a victim of the Tigers happy shooting as he was denied the ball most of the second half. Damarcus Harrison rounded out the double figure scorers with 10, all of which came in the first half, and an uncharacteristic 3 turnovers.
For the SMU Mustangs, it was all about Markus Kennedy. Kennedy dominated the post all night finishing with 21 points and 9 rebounds on 8-of-13 shooting. Kennedy gave the Mustangs their first lead and converted on the 3-point play that finished the Tigers off. Nic Moore added 13 for the Mustangs while Nick Russell rounded off double figure scorers with 10.
Although the Tigers are be heading home as the 2013-14 season comes to an end, the coverage doesn't. Stay tuned to Shakin the Southland for your in-depth season review and as we look forward to what the 2014-15 season could bring to Clemson, South Carolina.