Clemson got its first win of the season against a ranked opponent, downing No. 11 Virginia Tech 59-51 in front of an energized crowd Saturday afternoon in Littlejohn Coliseum. Shelton Mitchell set the tone early, scoring 18 first half points, including 12 in a row during one stretch. The senior guard finished with 22 points, setting a career high with five 3 pointers. He also had 5 rebounds and 3 assists.
After starting 1-5 in ACC play, Clemson has won four in a row to improve to 15-8 overall and even its record at 5-5 in the league. Meanwhile, the Hokies fall to 18-5 and 7-4 in the ACC. They’ve now lost consecutive games for the first time this season.
Clemson held the Hokies to a season-low 28% from the field. Tech was 5 of 19 (26% percent) from three-point range, and are now just 1-2 without the injured Justin Robinson.
The Tigers shot 41% from the field, hitting on 11-28 from beyond the arc (39%). Marquise Reed finished with 15 points, 5 rebounds, and 4 assists. Elijah Thomas finished with just 6 points, but grabbed 9 boards and was a huge factor on the defensive end, finishing with 7 blocks and affecting several more.
Virginia Tech was led by Kerry Blackshear Jr who scored 17 points and grabbed 7 boards, but also fouled out late in the game.
The Tigers will travel to Miami next, taking on the Canes Weds night, looking to extend their winning streak to 5 games.
Ryan Kantor’s Take
This is an absolutely huge win for the Tigers! It puts Clemson at .500 in ACC play. They’re now staring an NCAA tournament invitation in the face rather the fighting and clawing their way back into the discussion.
The Hokies were without their point guard, but they’re still a very good team with several great scorers and a defense that held NC State to 24 points in Raleigh. In our game preview, I wondered if Clemson’s improved three-point defense was indicative of true improvement or simply the product of the schedule. This paltry 5-19 three-point shooting from the Hokies - one of the best three-point shooting teams in the county - points to the former.
The Tigers defensive effort was headlined by David Skara. He doesn’t pick-up highlight reel blocks like K.J. McDaniel did, so it often goes unnoticed, but it shouldn’t. He was on Alexander-Walker all day and held him to 3-14 shooting with five turnovers. Alexander-Walker is a 6’5” guard projected to go in the first half of the first round of the NBA draft. Here’s Skara swatting his shot away as the Tigers maintained their slim lead in the second half:
Over their past three games, the Tigers have averaged just 43 points allowed. That’s incredible and indicative that this team has really turned a corner. Another key has been improved play of Shelton Mitchell. He is 12-21 from three in this four game winning streak. We don’t need him to shoot that blazing hot 57% to keep winning, but him providing an outside scoring threat changes this offense. He was just 2-19 in the six ACC games that preceded this win streak. Him knocking down three-pointers, especially with DeVoe departed and Reed’s 3P% down by 3.3 percentage-points from last season, is critical. Here’s Shelton Mitchell giving the Tigers their first lead of the day by knocking down a game-tying three-pointer (he was fouled and knocked down the ensuing FT to make it 6-5):
A third positive sign of lasting improvement came from freshman Hunter Tyson. He got 11 minutes of court time, the most he’s gotten since the game got out of hand against Duke. Here he attacks the basket and finishes with great touch:
Later he’d knock down a big three-pointer. Last season, we saw Anthony Oliver emerge late in the season and provide from bench depth. If Tyson can do the same, it will be very beneficial down the stretch of ACC play.
Lastly, I loved the mental toughness the team exhibited as calls were going against them. Eli Thomas seemed to be a marked man. I seldom criticize referees, as I understand how challenging it is given the speed of the game, but there was a phantom foul call on Eli Thomas in which he wasn’t really involved in the play. One could argue that one or two of the other fouls he committed were ticky tack, but this was reminiscent of the Thomas Austin phantom holding call at Georgia Tech in 2009. In football, if you call the wrong jersey name, it doesn’t really make the call wrong per se. In basketball, it can change the game. Thomas only played 25 minutes and it certainly put the Tigers at a disadvantage. While the crowd booed in frustration, the team moved on. It was great to see that mental toughness.
This win streak is more than just picking up the easy wins on the schedule now. KenPom has upped their projection for the Tigers to 20-11 (10-8). At 10-8, Clemson would be a tournament team once again!