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Defense Clamps Down as Clemson Beats Alabama

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The Tigers built a strong first half lead and maintained it throughout the second half for a 67-54 victory over Alabama in Birmingham.

NCAA Basketball: Clemson at Alabama Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

A season ago, the Tigers hosted the Crimson Tide and lost in the final moments of the game. It was one of a couple early losses that prevented the Tigers from being in serious NCAA tournament discussions when they peaked at 9-5 in the ACC.

This Sunday, the Tigers headed to Alabama to complete the home-and-home series with the Crimson Tide. The game was in Birmingham (they’ll also play an upcoming game in Huntsville) making the two-game series one that included no on-campus games (last year was in Greenville), a strange quirk.

Alabama jumped out to a quick 6-0 lead, but the Tigers would dominate for the next 10+ minutes as they went on a 27-6 run to make the score 27-12. The Tigers offense has been strong all season, entering the game #23 in the nation in offensive efficiency. That continued, but what made the Tigers look so strong in the first half was the return of Brownell’s patented suffocating man-to-man defense. Alabama had 12 first half turnovers to just two assists.

The Tigers had a few opportunities towards the end of the first half to put the game out of reach, but some ill-advised cross-court passes wasted Clemson possessions and Alabama’s first three-pointer of the contest finally fell with 24 seconds remaining in the first half. It cut the lead down to 12 points, which would be the deficit at halftime, 31-19.

The Tide’s three-point shooting never heated up, but they found better rhythm offensively in the second half and stopped wasting possessions with turnovers. After 12 in the first half, they had just four in the second half. Their defense also clamped down when they went to a 2-3 zone for part of the half and forced Clemson to adjust. Though they didn’t storm back, they managed to keep themselves in the game trailing by 11-16 throughout most of the second half.

Trailing by 16 with 4:28 remaining, they made their push. A full court press created some easy buckets for the Tide and a quick 6-0 run cut the lead to 10. Alabama then missed a three-pointer, a big opportunity to further cut into the lead. After a defensive stop, they got to the free throw line and trimmed the Tiger lead to nine with 2:18 remaining. Clemson countered with a fantastic possession that burned 40 seconds off the clocked (due to two non-shooting fouls) and ended with a bucket as Shelton Mitchell drove through traffic and finished at the rim to extend the lead to 11 points. The possession ended the threat and the Tigers cruised to a 67-54 victory over the Crimson Tide.

The Tigers picked up the win despite a relatively quiet game from Jaron Blossomgame. He took only two shots in the first half. Though he was a bit more involved in the second half, knocked a momentum shifting three-pointer, he also forced a few shots in the paint and finished with just 9 points and 4 rebounds in 34 minutes. While it wasn’t the best of games for Blossomgame, it was good to see the Tigers play well and win even when he doesn’t have a big game. He’ll have to be more involved for the Tigers to keep up with the likes of UNC (who looked great even in a loss to Kentucky).

The Tigers were aided by a great shooting day from their guards. Holmes (3-6), DeVoe (3-8), and Mitchell (2-2) combined for eight three-pointers as the Tigers shot .409 from three to Alabama’s poor .150 (3-20) shooting from behind the arc.

Shelton Mitchell led the Tigers in scoring with 18 points. He was 6-10 from the field and 4-4 from the free throw line. After making two three-pointers against Alabama, he is 7-13 from three on the season. This is rather unexpected (he was a .207 three-point shooter at Vanderbilt), but even if that regresses, he contributes in so many other ways. Mitchell makes good quick decisions that open up teammates, even if the basket comes after an additional pass. He also does a great job pushing the ball up the court and creating fast break opportunities.

Another transfer, Elijah “Eli” Thomas made his Clemson debut in the contest. He spelled Djitte for 14 minutes playing in a small lineup that put Grantham at PF as well as lineups that included Blossomgame. All his minutes came at center. He provided a solid post presence who could finish around the rim, and had a few really nice plays. He chipped in five points, two coming after a nice offensive rebound. As expected, it looks like he’ll be a solid bench contributor who will get 10+ minutes with room for more in games when Djitte gets into foul trouble.

The win is a big one for the Tigers who improve to 8-2 on the season. It was the fifth Tier A or Tier B game for the Tigers (A=Top 50 opponent adjusted for location, B=Top 100 adjusted for location). 18 of the Tigers next 20 games fall into one of these two categories so the road ahead gets much tougher. Next up will be the nationally ranked #16 Gamecocks on the road this Wednesday.

Things are going about as well as we had hoped for the basketball team. Enjoy the win. Clemson just beat Alabama at a neutral site game, something we may see again in a couple of weeks, if you know what I mean.