The Clemson men’s basketball team ran into a hot-shooting Mississippi State squad on Saturday in Newark, NJ, and they ultimately could not claw their way back as they fell by a final score of 82-71 in the Never Forget Tribute Classic.
Playing without leading scorer Marcquise Reed, who sprained his knee in Clemson’s underwhelming 65-60 win over St. Peter’s on Tuesday, the Tigers did not have the requisite firepower to compete with the No. 22-ranked Bulldogs’ precision from deep. Mississippi State drilled a whopping 19 three-point field goals, shooting an incredible 19-for-30 from deep. The 19 three-point makes represented both the most ever for Mississippi State and the most ever surrendered by Clemson.
Remarkably, Mississippi State is typically not even a good three-point shooting team, as they came into the contest shooting at a clip of only 32 percent from three-point country. So after the Bulldogs nailed 10 out of 18 three-point attempts in the first half, conventional wisdom suggested that they would eventually cool off, potentially allowing Clemson to seize control of game, but they were even more efficient in the final 20 minutes. The Bulldogs made nine out of 12 three-point attempts in the second half. Part of it was attributable to poor close-outs from the Tigers’ defense, but it seemed that more of it was just hot shooting that Clemson could not do much to control.
Leading the way for Mississippi State was junior guard Lamar Peters, who finished with a career-high 28 points—one game after establishing a then-career high of 27 points—largely on the strength of an unconscious 8-for-11 performance from beyond the arc. Senior guard Quinndary Weatherspoon added 20 points and shot 4-for-7 from deep, while forward Aric Holman chipped in 16 points, including five three-pointers. Three of Holman’s makes from deep came in the opening minutes as Mississippi State jumped out to a 12-2 lead.
Clemson made a few runs to keep the issue in doubt until the final few minutes. After a poor shooting start—especially from three-point range, which was a stark contrast to the Bulldogs’ shooting performance—the Tigers cut into a 38-19 first-half deficit to get to within eight points at 42-34 by the break. Aamir Simms made a couple of three-pointers late in the first half to propel Clemson’s surge; he finished with a career-best 23 points. Elijah Thomas was a force inside for Clemson, as he poured in 18 points on an impressive 8-for-9 field goal shooting performance. David Skara also added 12 points via an efficient five field goals on six attempts.
The Tigers got within five points of the Bulldogs on a couple of occasions in the second half, but every time they appeared primed to come all the way back, Mississippi State would make another crushing three-pointer. While Simms and Thomas did their parts to keep Clemson in it for much of the way, an alarmingly poor performance from senior guard Shelton Mitchell limited the Tigers’ ability to fully cut into the Bulldogs’ lead.
With Reed sidelined, the Tigers need Mitchell to play some top-notch basketball; i.e., to the level he demonstrated in the postseason last year. On Saturday, though, he came nowhere close to that. He shot a putrid 3-for-16, including 1-for-8 from deep. While he contributed seven assists, he needs to shoot better, score more than nine points, and make better decisions overall if the Tigers are going to survive in ACC play this season. His uneven season and poor shooting represent perhaps the biggest concern for Clemson moving forward.
Beyond Mitchell’s forgettable game, Clemson did not get much from its bench, as the starters accounted for 62 of the team’s 71 points. Freshman John Newman III, who got the start in place of the injured Reed, did not tally any points, failing to make the most of his opportunity when Clemson needed to replace Reed’s offense by committee.
With the loss, Clemson drops to 6-3 on the season. More significantly, they squandered what appears to have been their last shot at a strong, NCAA tournament resume-boosting non-conference win. To this point, their best win of the season is their 64-49 victory in the Cayman Islands Classic tournament over an unimpressive Georgia team that also lost to Georgia State in the Classic. Clemson still has a date with rival South Carolina in Columbia on Dec. 22, but the Gamecocks are just 4-5 on the season.
The Tigers have a week before their next game, a home tilt against Radford on Dec. 15. Radford is not a big name, but Clemson better be on its toes if it wants to score a victory, as the Highlanders have already upset Texas and Notre Dame this season.