The Clemson Tigers (23-9) (11-7) were eliminated in the ACC Tournament in Brooklyn by the #1 seeded and #1 team in the country, the Virginia Cavaliers (30-2) (17-1) on Friday evening at the Barclays Center in New York. The Cavaliers entered the contest as the heavy favorite to not only win the ACC Tournament, but many considered them favorites to win the National Championship as well as their stingy defensive style of basketball has UVA ranked #1 in the nation in points-per game, #3 in the nation in field goal percentage allowed and #7 in the country in three-point field goal percentage allowed.
In a game that clearly appeared to be portrayed by the media as the undercard to the third matchup between Duke and UNC (at least that’s how it appeared based on the number of times that we saw the teams stretching in the tunnels during the previous game) the Tigers showed that they weren’t going to be pushed around early on. Clemson used an 8-0 run thanks to the outside jump shooting of Shelton Mitchell to jump to an early seven-point lead with just over 10 minutes remaining. Clemson controlled the early portion of this game through their effort on the defensive glass, as they were limiting the Cavaliers to one shot while avoiding the 19 turnovers that plagued them in the team earlier meeting.
With Clemson holding a 20-13 lead and the momentum in the ballgame, the number one team in the nation seemed to return to form at the end the half. Virginia would tighten up on the defensive side of the ball, specifically after Elijah Thomas picked up his second foul of the half, which would force him to sit for the last 8 minutes. Virginia would go on a 16-0 run thanks to two three-pointers from Kyle Guy, and Clemson would go 8 minutes and 25 seconds without a point before three free throws by Shelton Mitchell would break the spell. Virginia would turn around a seven-point deficit and take a 32-23 lead into the locker room at the half.
With leading scorers Marcquise Reed and Gabe DeVoe unable to find the bottom of the net in the first half, the Tigers strategy to enter the second half became clear, find Elijah Thomas, and find him on all possessions. With Thomas flexing his muscles (literally) on the inside post, he managed to cut the Virginia lead to 8 points, before the momentum swing of the game. Thomas picked up his third foul of the contest sending him back to the bench with just over 12 minutes to play.
If there was a single game to illustrate just how important Elijah Thomas is to the Clemson Tiger offense than this contest against the Cavaliers, I would like to see it. Thanks to the Cavalier defense and the Tiger shooting struggle, Clemson went on a span of over 20 minutes of game time where Elijah Thomas was the only Clemson player to make a field goal. The streak was broken by a Marcquise Reed layup with just under 8 minutes remaining in the second half.
Clemson would hold the score close for the majority of the game with the top ranked Cavaliers, but Virginia would get eight second half points form an unlikely source in Jack Salt that would put the Tigers away and prevent them from getting any closer than four points as Virginia advanced to the ACC Championship Game on Saturday by a final score of 64-58.
Clemson was led in scoring on the day by Shelton Mitchell, who finished with 18 points on 5-of-11 shooting while connecting on 3 shots from behind the arc. The Tiger’s only other double figure scorer and player of the game was Thomas, who finished with 15 points on 5-of-8 shooting, while hitting 5-of-7 of his free throw attempts and grabbing a team leading 7 rebounds. To show the importance of Gabe DeVoe to the Tigers, Clemson is 10-0 in ACC play when DeVoe scores 13 points or more and 0-6 when he doesn’t since the loss of Donte Grantham. DeVoe added 8 points while leading scorer Reed added only 6 to seal the Tigers fate.
Kyle Guy led the Cavaliers in scoring on the evening with 15 points on 6-of-12 shooting, including 3 shots from behind the arc. Devon Hall was the only other Cavalier starter in double figures with 10 points while Mamadi Diakite added 10 points off of the bench in the Cavalier win. Despite a strong start from the Tigers, Virginia outrebounded the Tigers 37-32 and the Tigers turned the ball over 13 times to the Cavaliers 8.
Clemson will await their fate on Selection Sunday as Clemson looks to be a 5 or a 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Stay tuned to Shakin the Southland for all of your Clemson Basketball coverage.