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Clemson Uses First Half Dominance to Bury First Place Syracuse

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Rod Hall, Jaron Blossomgame, and Donte Grantham put the Clemson Tigers (10-7) back on the map with an upset victory over the first place Syracuse Orangemen (13-5)

Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

Jim Boeheim came into Clemson on Saturday afternoon concerned about places to eat when he should have been concerned about his team’s first half performance. Yes I am aware that this is somewhat of an old comment, but many fans including myself have waited a considerable amount of time to rub that comment back in coach Boeheim’s face.

Tiger fan’s wishes were granted on Saturday afternoon as Clemson stormed to a 66-53 victory over Syracuse at Littlejohn Coliseum. The Orangemen entered the contest sitting on top of the ACC, undefeated in ACC play, and winners of their last seven games after a slow 6-4 start.

There are certain things about Syracuse that seem like they will never change. Coach Boeheim roaming the sidelines, the sturdy 2-3 zone and their winning ways all seem to be making permanent stays with Syracuse. The cost of this persistence, however, is the constant turnover of players. This year's Syracuse team was looking for a way to replace starters C.J. Fair, Tyler Ennis, and Jerami Grant. The Tigers returned to Littlejohn Coliseum after a road loss to #2 Virginia to a home floor where they suffered an embarrassing loss to the North Carolina Tar Heels. The young Tigers entered the contest in desperate need of a win to turn their season around. The two teams were meeting for just the fourth time in the history of the programs with Syracuse holding a 2-1 advantage. Syracuse was returning to Littlejohn Coliseum for the first time since an NIT Tournament quarterfinal exit in 2007.

Clemson would start against the vaunted 2-3 zone by attacking the rim and with mid-range jumpers and with senior point guard Rod Hall being aggressive. Hall would score 6 of the Tigers first 10 points with a three-point play and a three. Syracuse would respond with Senior Center Rakeem Christmas. In his post game interview, Coach Boeheim described Christmas as "the best center in the country, which is all I can say." Christmas lived up to his coaches post game praises Christmas was responsible for the Oranges’ first 9 points and was the only Orange player to score until a pair of Kaleb Joseph free throws with 6:54 remaining in the first half. Before the half had ended, Christmas was responsible for all but 2 of the Orange field goals and 11 of their 18 first half points.

On the other end of the floor, Clemson was relying on the three-headed attack of Rod Hall, Jaron Blossomgame, and Donte Grantham to pile up the points. The Tigers attacked the 2-3 zone with Blossomgame flashing to the high post, and by setting high ball screens to free Rod Hall for inside drives. By the time the first half rolled down, Clemson was clicking on all offensive cylinders, ending the half making 5 of their final 6 field goal attempts for 12 points after the final television timeout to increase the halftime lead to 39-18.

The second half is a period that Clemson has struggled with all season as they have failed to put together 40 full minutes of basketball. Clemson hung with the #2 ranked Cavaliers for the first half until a 26% shooting second half doomed them to another blow out loss. Clemson looked to avoid the same fate against a Syracuse team that was bound to come out determined to claw their way back into the game after an embarrassing first half performance. Clemson quickly lost the shooters touch that blessed them in the first half. Blossomgame would score a mid-range jumper and Grantham would add his third 3-pointer of the game to keep the lead in the 20’s with 16:51 remaining, but Clemson would not add a field goal for almost 7 minutes as Syracuse continued to chip away.

The lead dwindled to 13 when a Rakeem Christmas jumper trimmed the lead to 45-32 with 10:16 remaining. Landry Nnoko would enter the game for the final 8 minutes back from foul trouble after a rather unremarkable performance and provide the points to put the Orangemen away for good after a jump hook with 5:22 remaining extended the Clemson lead 54-38. Trevor Cooney would sink five consecutive free throws to keep the game in question, however, the game would end with 6 consecutive Tiger free throws to end the game with a 66-53 Tiger victory.

The Clemson victory can be attributed to the game play of Rod Hall, Jaron Blossomgame and Freshman Donte Grantham. Rod Hall ran the point as usual, but also played some of the best defense that I have ever seen on Syracuse sharp shooter Trevor Cooney, holding him to 5 points (all on free throws) while he averages over 14 points per game. When asked after the game of the defensive job done on his senior sharp shooter, coach Boeheim acted like what Hall did was nothing special and it was very similar to the job St. John’s did on Cooney earlier in the season. Let me tell you readers that what Rod Hall did to Trevor Cooney was nothing close to ordinary. Cooney didn’t make a field goal the entire game and had Hall in his hip pocket the entire contest. Hall finished with 15 points on 4-6 shooting and adding 6 assists. Combined with the defensive job he did on Cooney, Hall was the star of the game.

Not be outshined by Rod Hall, Jaron Blossomgame deserves much of the credit as well. Make sure to read the prior exclusive on Blossomgame by writer Ryan Kantor and note just how similar it is to how Blossomgame performed tonight. Against the rough Syracuse 2-3 zone, the offense ran through Blossomgame as he was the player that the guards made sure got the ball when he flashed in the high post. Blossomgame added 15 point as well as 12 rebounds, including 5 on the offensive boards in yet another stellar performance.

Clemson’s leading scorer on the night was Freshman Donte Grantham. Grantham continued his rapid progression through his freshman season with a team high 16 points on 6-of-12 shooting including a game high four three-pointers made on 8 attempts. Clemson won the game on the offensive boards totaling 13 for the game and making those possessions count as they concluded the game with 20 second chance points. Aside from Blossomgame’s 5 offensive rebounds, Sidy Djitte added 4 of his own in 21 minutes of solid defensive play after Landry Nnoko got into foul trouble. Clemson has a short turnaround as they host the Florida State Seminoles on Monday evening at Littlejohn Coliseum at 9:00pm. Stay tuned to Shakin the Southland for more Clemson Basketball coverage.