Coach Brad Brownell summed up the Tigers season very well in a press conference last week when he described the Tigers as snake bitten. It is hard to disagree with memories of Seth Allen and Tyus Battle knocking down game winners fresh in our minds, along with the countless losses by 5 points or less this season. Tonight, the Tigers managed to come out on the other end of the scrum as they defeated the NC State Wolfpack 78-74 in yet another close ACC battle on Wednesday evening in Littlejohn Coliseum.
In a game where the teams were clearly looking to limit the scoring of the two marquee players in the game (Jaron Blossomgame and Dennis Smith Jr), the scoring opened up at a rapid pace from the role players on the court, specifically Shelton Mitchell. Mitchell would score 10 of the Tigers first 12 points with 2 three pointers as he knifed through a lackadaisical Wolfpack defense. The Wolfpack would manage to hold serve with offensive spurts from Maverick Rowan and Terry Henderson as the teams managed to keep the game close for a majority of the first half. As the first half progressed, we saw a scary moment as Elijah Thomas rolled up on the leg of Freshman Markell Johnson, and Johnson had to be carried to the locker room with a left knee injury. He would return to the sideline on crutches and the status of his health is currently unknown.
With 10 minutes remaining in the first half, Clemson decided to go big, sending in Sidy Djitte on the floor with Elijah Thomas in a look that has not been seen by the Tiger fans for much time this season. The look resulted in NC State focusing in on the paint allowing the Tiger guards some more space to shoot. The Tigers were unable to separate as North Carolina State would hit 6 of their next 7 shots and take a 27-24 lead as the Tiger defense began to lapse.
Neither team would manage to separate themselves for the remainder of the half as the largest lead would be Clemson by 4. Ted Kapita would hit a jumper near the buzzer to take a 1 point lead, 38-37 into the locker rooms at the half. The teams were managing to get points despite the lack of scoring from the stars. Jaron Blossomgame was held with no field goals in the first half, while Dennis Smith Jr. was held to 1-of-3 shooting with only four points.
The Tigers entered the half shooting 15-of-32 from the field while hitting 5 three pointers. On the other end, the Wolfpack managed to shoot 16-of-29 from the floor (53.6%). The story of the first half seemed to be that both teams were taking care of the ball. Both teams entered the half with only four turnovers. What kept Clemson in the game in the first half was the Tigers on the offensive glass. The Tigers outscored the Wolfpack 14-2 in second chance points going into the break.
Both teams managed to bring their offense with them out of the locker room to start the second half. Clemson started the half shooting 3-of-4 from the field while NC State continued their red-hot shooting, making their first 4 field goal attempts of the half. The Wolfpack were exploiting the Tiger defense inside with their big men, including a mismatch that had Blossomgame covering Abdul Malik-Abu for a majority of the game, as they were frequently open from the free throw line for mid-range jumpers that they were knocking down.
Clemson would wait until there were under 10 minutes left in the game to make a move, and it would come in the form of Sidy Djitte. Trailing by 2 points for most of the second half, the Tigers would use a 6-0 run, with 4 second chance points from Djitte to take the lead and extend it to 61-55 with just over 8 minutes remaining. The lead just wasn’t sustainable as a Henderson 3 tied the game at 67 with 5 minutes remaining.
With a three-point lead and 2 minutes remaining in the game, a collective groan rose from Littlejohn Coliseum as Smith rose up and hit a three pointer to tie the score at 72 apiece. You can imagine the thoughts running through the player’s heads of “this can’t be happening again”, but in times like this you go to your best player. After being held scoreless in the first half, Blossomgame calmly knocked down a three pointer to give the Tiger the lead once again at 75-72. After a pair of Malik-Abu free throws cut the lead to 75-74, Blossomgame was fouled and went to the line to shot a 1-and-1. After hitting the first, Jaron would miss the second and NC State would call a timeout with 18 seconds remaining, and a chance to tie or win the game.
Everybody knew where the ball was going, and the Tigers pounced. After Dennis Smith gave the ball up, he immediately got it back and put up a 3-pointer with under five seconds remaining. The crowd at Littlejohn held their breath and covered their eyes, but the shot missed badly right, and Clemson would inbound with 3 seconds remaining. A pair of Blossomgame free throws would ice away the victory, and Clemson would hold home court with a 78-74 victory.
Clemson had five players in double figures on the evening led by Blossomgame with 16 points (all in the second half) while adding 8 rebounds. Shelton Mitchell would join Blossomgame with 16 points in yet another solid performance running the point with 0 turnovers. The player of the game for me had to be Sidy Djitte who added 12 points and 9 rebounds in key minutes for the Tigers. Marquise Reed and Gabe DeVoe would round out the double figure scorers for the Tigers with 11 and 10 respectively. Clemson shot 29-of-62 (46.8%) from the field, and managed to hit 7 of their 17 three point attempts (41.2%) in the winning effort. Clemson managed to outrebound the Wolfpack 36-32, and beat the Wolfpack in an astounding fashion in second chance points, by a margin of 25-3.
Malik-Abu would lead the Wolfpack in scoring with 18 points on 8-of-14 shooting. The game plan for the Tigers was to shut down Dennis Smith Jr, and swarming defense from Avry Holmes and double teams off screens forced Smith to give the ball away most of the night. Smith ended the evening with 13 points on 5-of-11 shooting. Terry Henderson and Maverick Rowan rounded out the double figure scorers for the Wolfpack with 13 and 12. The Wolfpack will head back to Raleigh with a loss despite shooting 30-of-61 from the floor (49.2%) and turning the ball over only 8 times. The Tigers managed to defend without fouling tonight as NC State attempted only 8 free throws on the night.
Clemson will conclude their regular season as they take on Boston College on Senior Day at Littlejohn Coliseum on Saturday before departing for the ACC Tournament in Brooklyn. Stay tuned to Shakin the Southland for more Clemson Basketball coverage.