The Tigers hosted the Nebraska Cornhuskers, a underrated team poised to make a run into the NCAA tournament in the opening match of the ACC/Big 10 Challenge.
It was a battle between teams that looked strikingly similar. Both prefer a slow pace (both outside the top 200 in possessions per game) and are better defensive than offensively. That led to a relatively tame first half. A quiet crowd and slow pace was quite the contrast to Saturday night’s heated affair in Death Valley.
Shelton Mitchell led the Tigers in the first half with nine points while Clyde Trapp played a big role in the Tigers early success scoring all eight of his points in the half. Interestingly, Trapp relieved Reed at the 2 guard rather than Mitchell at point guard in the half.
Eli Thomas, after scoring four quick points in the first minute of the game, picked up two fouls and spent much of the half on the bench, ending the half with just those 4 points. The Tigers entered halftime tied 31-31.
As the second half started, Clemson’s offense appeared primed to run through Eli Thomas. He looked sharp as he quickly picked up 4 points early in the second half. He then picked up a silly foul where he was reaching backwards over his head towards the opposing player. With his third foul he headed back to the bench and Clemson’s offense again slowed.
James Palmer, the Miami (FL) transfer who is having an excellent season for the Corn Huskers was held to just 6 points in the first half but finished with 20 as his big second half propelled Nebraska to a lead in the final minutes.
Nebraska held a five point lead with 5 minutes to-go. The Big Red moved the ball well and sound Watson, who would lead all players with 7 attempted three-pointers, wide open in the corner. Clemson caught a break as the open look clanked out and they avoided an eight point deficit. The Tigers offense had no answers though. Nebraska would soon get the ball back and extend the lead to 7 as the clock ticked into the final three minutes.
An Eli Thomas bucket trimmed it back to 5, before Nebraska hit a three-pointer pushing it to 8 points with just over 2 minutes remaining. Clemson managed to rally and trim it to 66-64. They earned another defensive stop and had an opportunity to tie or take the lead, but as Marcquise Reed attacked the basket, he hopped one too many times and was correctly called for a traveling violation. The Tigers fouled to stop the clock, but Nebraska made both free throws to ice the game. Clemson would score a meaningless bucket with 1 second remaining and the Tigers would drop their second game in a row to drop to 5-2.
They fall from #24 to #30 in KenPom’s rankings and are still devoid of a quality win (their win over 3-3 UGA - who lost to Georgia St. in the Grand Cayman Classic - remains their best). Three-pointers are currently accounting for just 27% of their total points (250th). Last season, that metric was at 33% (107th). Despite this, Simms, Skara, and Trapp have all shown offensive growth this season, particularly behind the arc. Reed’s scoring is up, but he has struggled from three.
Clemson’s bench, which no longer boasts Mark Donnal has also come up short offensively, and failed to score a second half field goal in this one. Attempting to fill the hole left by Donnal’s departure are Malik William - who has been injured - and grad transfer Javan White - who has only scored 8 points on the season.
Clemson is still in okay shape to make a postseason run. This start is not catastrophic by any measure, but there is only one more opportunity for a quality win in the non-conference slate. The Saturday after the ACC Football Championship (Dec. 8), Clemson plays Mississippi State (#24 in KenPom) in a neutral site matchup (NJ). With SC as bad as they are (they’ll likely be .500 with losses to Stoney Brook and Wofford when they play Clemson), beating Mississippi State becomes a must. Exiting non-conference play with nothing to add to the resume puts the Tigers in a challenging position as they navigate the ACC.