If you’re a Clemson fan looking to get some type of therapeutic, healing experience out of this recap of the men’s basketball team’s crushing 69-67 loss at NC State on Saturday afternoon, I’m not sure this is really going to help you. But alas, here we go.
The Tigers came into this game against the 21st-ranked Wolfpack needing a conference road win to kick off an effort to salvage what is quickly becoming a lost season. Instead, disaster struck, as the Tigers displayed the polar opposite of the “Clemson Grit” identity that made last season so exciting.
Clemson trailed 30-24 at halftime, as both teams were playing a sloppy game. That theme continued in the second half, which saw center Elijah Thomas pick up his third foul of the game shortly after coming out of the locker room. With him on the bench and the—ahem...shaky—Javan White filling in, NC State got to an eight-point advantage at 49-41 with just under 11 minutes to go.
That was just after Thomas had re-entered the game, and from that point, he made his presence known. He dominated the Wolfpack on both ends of the floor, picking up multiple blocks and finishing a three-point play, to ignite a 12-0 Clemson run that put them ahead 53-49. They would hold on to the lead until the final buzzer.
With just 53 seconds to go, Marcquise Reed hit what appeared to be a game-deciding pull-up jumper from just inside the left elbow. The bucket put the Tigers up 65-60 at that point. Unfortunately for Reed and Clemson, he and the team would completely erase that clutch moment with some inexcusable errors.
First, there was Clyde Trapp fouling NC State’s Markell Johnson as he put up a shot in the lane that fell. The call was definitely questionable, but Trapp needs to know better than to put himself in that position where a minor reach-in could be called as a foul. Johnson completed the three-point play to bring the Wolfpack to within three at 67-64 with 19 seconds remaining.
After DJ Funderburk of NC State bailed Reed out of a trap by fouling him with 13 seconds to go, Reed’s nightmarish downward spiral commenced. The normally reliable free-throw shooter—he entered the game making his free throws at an 84.3-percent clip—missed both of his shots from the stripe.
Still up by three, following an NC State timeout with nine seconds left, Clemson elected to foul immediately after the inbound pass, putting Braxton Beverly at the line for two shots. It was a questionable decision in that it extended the game (less than a second ran off the clock) and gave the Wolfpack another in their comeback attempt. Beverly made both free throws, but then NC State had to foul again with seven seconds left, and Reed had a chance to atone for his previous misses.
Instead, Reed was clearly affected by the pressure of the moment and the NC State crowd, as he missed both yet again. From there on, a Clemson loss felt inevitable, and Beverly made that a reality with a long three-pointer as time expired.
Reed was Clemson’s leading scorer with 19 points, but he shot the ball very poorly from the field (5-for-17) and of course had the four crushing misses from the free throw line. Thomas was efficient once again with 18 points (14 in the second half) on 8-for-11 shooting. He put the Tigers in prime position for a big victory, but his team ultimately let him down in the final moments as he watched from the bench given coach Brad Brownell’s desire to put in players who could more effectively guard the three-point line (that worked out great, didn’t it?).
The most puzzling sub-plot of Clemson’s season—the poor play from senior point guard Shelton Mitchell—continued in this one, as he had four bad turnovers and also missed a critical free throw down the stretch. He was benched for significant stretches in the final minutes due to his struggles. His disappointing campaign might be the single biggest reason why the Tigers have gone so dramatically in the opposite direction following a feel-good Sweet 16 season in 2017-18.
Want another negative storyline from this game? Clemson did not make a single three-point shot; they finished 0-for-7. NC State, meanwhile, shot it poorly in the first half from beyond the arc but made some important threes late in the game, finishing 9-for-24. Guard Markell Johnson led the way for them with 16 points off the bench while guard C.J. Bryce had 15. Beverly finished with 12.
At this point, with an overall record of just 11-8 and an ugly 1-5 mark in conference, not only do Clemson’s NCAA tournament hopes appear to be nearly dead, but they might be lucky just to make it to the NIT. They return to action at home against Pittsburgh (12-8, 2-5) at 9:00 p.m. EST on Tuesday, Jan. 29. They’ll need to win that as well as the three that follow the bring any life back into the season and avoid the season spiraling as the team’s goals become out of reach.