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Clemson escapes Wright State in NIT 1st Round 75-69

NCAA Basketball: Syracuse at Clemson Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

The Tigers came out of the gate hot, much like the ACC Tournament game, racing out to a 16-2 lead behind good shooting out of Marcquise Reed in particular, but it didn’t even take a half for Wright State to get back in the game. There wasn’t much of a crowd in Littlejohn, but the folks in attendance had to be shocked at the sight of actual major bench production as Wright State’s bench led the comeback. Clemson’s best bench player, Clyde Trapp, was moved into a starting role when Shelton Mitchell’s balky knee once again raised its ugly head to keep him out of the contest. Wright State actually took the lead before Reed was able to tie things up with an elbow jumper, knotting it at 33 at the break.

It really didn’t take too long to see that Wright State was more than capable of competing with the Tigers, showing they could pound it inside and knock down perimeter shots alike. Bill Wampler was doing some work with very fundamental plays off jump stops, jab steps, and off the ball movement. Clemson’s calling card, its defense, was having a hard time holding up as Wright State was at 50% from the field and 46% from 3 at the 13:33 mark of the second half. So Brownell actually went zone, a rarity for him, to try to slow the momentum. Trapp and Reed were able to score on a basket and 2 free throws to draw Clemson back to within 2, then Skara buried a corner three off a kick from Reed to retake the lead. The teams traded 3’s before the under 12 timeout, triggered by a review of a takedown which resulted in a flagrant on Wright State. That sequence allowed the Tigers to build the lead to 4 and find some more energy.

Elijah Thomas and massive 280 pound center Loudon Love started taking turns going at each other in the paint. Love showed why he was the best offensive rebounder in the land on more than a few occasions, abusing both Thomas and Aamir Simms a few times in the paint. I found it strange that Brownell chose to play with a smaller lineup with Love on the floor. A Love basket over Simms made it a 57-56 Tiger lead at the under 8 timeout.

There have been more freshmen moments for John Newman this season than fans would like, and a few more happened as he got more extended minutes in this game with Mitchell out. Newman wasn’t aware of the shot clock on a kick out, leading to a turnover, then later lost Wampler on a cross screen away from the ball, allowing a wide open 3. There is a lot of growth needed from all the freshmen on this year’s team if next year isn’t going to be a train wreck.

A poor flop decision by Thomas allowed a wide open 3 from Wright State for the 9th lead change of the night. Reed followed up with 3 free throws as the teams continued to go back and forth, bringing the score to 63-62 Tigers at the under 4 timeout. At this point, any Clemson fan who has followed this team had to be fretting with the horrific record in close games. The TV graphics on this were ready to go just in case anyone wasn’t thinking about it already.

Clyde Trapp drilled a big 3 before Reed had a rebound knocked away pretty violently, leading to a layup for Wright State. The teams continued to trade baskets and the Tigers were not able to pull away. Eli Thomas hit two big free throws to make it 72-69, but the Tigers were not able to box out Gentry on a missed 3, allowing Wright State another possession out of a timeout at the 56 second mark. Another 3 point miss led to another Love offensive rebound and Thomas’s 4th foul. Love missed Wright State’s first 2 free throws of the night. Clemson had a missed runner from Reed, and the subsequent scrum for the rebound led to Love clobbering John Newman. The review said common foul only, and Newman hit 1-2 from the line for the all important 2 possession lead. Wampler’s missed 3 resulted in Clyde Trapp being fouled and icing the game and a 75-69 victory.

Reed once again led the Tigers with 24 points and Eli Thomas helped out with 17. David Skara helped make up for Mitchell’s absence with 4 made 3’s and 16 points of his own. The hero might have very well been Clyde Trapp, whose big shots and post feed to Thomas down the stretch helped hold of the Wright State charge. Trapp finished with 12 points, putting four Tigers in double figures.

Clemson avoided the embarrassment of a first round home loss to a mid major like the one to Oakland two seasons ago. However, at least with Mitchell out, Clemson looks very much like just an NIT level squad. Wright State looked like the better team for big stretches of the game and buried 10 3’s, but ultimately the size and skill of Thomas, shot making of Reed, and enough help from Skara and Trapp allowed Clemson to escape. Now the Tigers will wait to see if Furman or Wichita State awaits in round 2.