The Clemson Tigers entered the KFC Yum! Center Saturday hoping to catch the Louisville Cardinals off guard after their recent collapse against Duke. Clemson left with their tails between their legs and their NCAA tournament hopes hanging on by a thread after another heartbreaking last second loss.
After a strong defensive first half gave Clemson a 23-19 halftime lead, the Tigers faltered in the second half. After blowing their four point halftime lead and trailing by as much as seven (48-41), the Tigers clawed back and had a chance to win at the buzzer.
Two late three-pointers by Marcquise Reed got the Tigers to within one and ready to foul with 3.5 seconds to go. Jordan Nwora, Louisville’s leading scorer on the season, threw the inbound pass straight to Reed. Nwora was able to recover and swatted Reed’s floater away and into the hands of John Newman III who took a rushed shot that clanged off the side of the rim as he faded away from the basket and time expired.
A performance marred by turnovers - 12 in the first half and 19 for the game - still came down to the last few seconds. That makes this close loss hurt even more for a Tigers team whose last 3 ACC losses against NC State, Miami and Louisville have come by a combined four points. One additional made shot in any or all of those games and the 2018-19 Clemson Tigers would be on track for the NCAA tournament. As it stands, they will need a significant turnaround and at least a 4-2 record in their remaining ACC games (more likely 5-1) to be comfortable with their chances come Selection Sunday.
Despite the loss, the seniors led the way for the Tigers in the game and had some strong performances. Eli Thomas finished with 15 points and seven rebounds, leading the team and going on a private 8-0 run late in the game to keep the Tigers alive. Marcquise Reed had 13 points and 12 rebounds, including two three-pointers in the last ten seconds and Shelton Mitchell ended the night with 12 points. David Skara fouled out with four points in the game, but was instrumental in holding Nwora to only 11 points on 4-13 shooting on the night. It wasn’t enough as a late free throw from Steven Enoch for Louisville proved to be just enough for the Cardinals to come away with a win.
The difference in the game came when the Cardinals were able to make an extended run in the second half, turning a seven point deficit with 17 minutes remaining into a seven point lead with three and a half minutes to go. They went on a 26-12 run in that 13:30 minute stretch. Christen Cunningham led the way for the Cardinals with 18 points and five assists. He accounted for 11 points and three assists during Louisville’s run with all three assists coming on three-pointers by his teammates.
This game is another missed opportunity for a Tigers team in dire need of quality wins. They now fall to 5-7 in ACC play with few likely opportunities remaining to notch a marquee win during the 2018-19 basketball season. Home games against Florida State on Tuesday and North Carolina on March 2nd are the only remaining regular season games that would boost a resume that is currently lacking many highlights (Virginia Tech being their only high-quality win). That Florida State matchup is followed by two winnable matchups at home against Boston College and on the road against Pittsburgh in the coming weeks. If the Tigers want to have any chance of a return trip to the NCAA tournament, they’ll need to take care of business and secure all three wins before hosting North Carolina on the 2nd.