The Tigers returned to Littlejohn Coliseum hoping get back on track after NC State snapped their impressive three-game win streak. Sophomore Hunter Tyson got his much deserved first start (in place of Tevin Mack) and the two teams were off to the races.
Stops were hard to come by in the early going and Wake Forest held a slim 18-17 lead nine minutes into the first half. The Tigers then got themselves mired in a scoring drought that lasted over four minutes and allowed the Deacons to grab a 10-point lead (27-17). French big man, Olivier Sarr, set the pace for the Deacons finishing the first half 4-5 with 10 points.
Sarr also did yeoman’s work defensively, holding Aamir Simms scoreless in the first half. Hunter Tyson led the way for Clemson the with 9 first half points. He showed a willingness to step inside the three-point line and knock down mid-range shots and attack the basket. That kept Clemson within six as the teams went into half 37-31.
After halftime, Sarr resumed eating up the Clemson defense adding 6 more points in just over five minutes. With 14:51 remaining Sarr committed his third foul, and went to the bench. Aamir Simms scored his first points of the game less than 21 seconds later - a 3-pointer. He added a block on the ensuing possession and then an offensive rebound and lay-in immediately after. The Tigers had pulled within one (46-47) and the game had suddenly shifted. Sarr sat for over six minutes and never regained his rhythm. He didn’t score the rest of the night and finished with 16-points.
The game was tight with Wake Forest clinging to a slim lead until they went on their second four minute scoring drought of the half. Clemson capitalized with a 9-0 run and finally grabbed a 57-56 lead off a Hunter Tyson layup. Curran Scott extended the lead to 61-56 on a three-pointer with just 4:35 remaining. Clemson finally had control of the game.
When Clemson had the opportunity to pull away, the issue that cost them in Raleigh resurfaced - missed free throws. With three minutes to go, Cylde Trapp scored in the paint while drawing a foul. At the line with a chance to extend the lead to five, Trapp missed. with 1:11 remaining, Trapp got fouled and went to the line for a one-and-one and missed the front end. The lead remained at 4. After Clemson earned a defensive stop, Wake Forest Coach Danny Manning saw an opportunity and fouled the struggling Trapp. He missed the front-end of the one-and-one again. Fortunately, Clemson’s defense also rose to the occasion again as the star of the night, Hunter Tyson, drew a charging foul.
With only 11 seconds remaining and Clemson clinging to a 67-64 lead, Wake Forest found an open 3-pointer. It clung off the rim. The Tigers had caught a break!
During the scuffle for the rebound, Wake Forest committed a foul, and again it sent Clyde Trapp to the free throw line. He would shoot two, needing to make one to seal the victory. He missed the first, dropping him to 1-6 on the night. With a chance to make it a two possession game, he took the second free throw and knocked it down. Clemson led 68-64.
From there, it was all but over. The teams traded free throws with Simms knocking down two after Wake only made one. That gave Clemson a five point lead. Wake Forest’s Brandon Childress knocked down a 3-pointer to make it a two-point affair and then, with just 0:01 remaining, Clemson wisely tossed it across the court where no harm could be done. Tyson caught it and was fouled with less than a second remaining. He made the first and (likely intentionally) missed the second. The clock wound to 0:00 as the ball bounced off the rim.
The Tigers hung on for the 71-68 win and improved their ACC record to an improbable 4-4. With a road trip to Louisville coming on Saturday, they had to win this game. It took everything they had, but they did it.
There are two ways to look at this win. The pessimistic view would be to note that this was (per KenPom) the easiest game left on the schedule and the Tigers were extremely fortunate to squeak it out. The Deacons were a paltry 7-23 (23.3%) from three and missed several open looks including the game-tying shot. Meanwhile the Tigers struggles from the free throw line worsened. They finished 7-18 (38.9%) and at one point were as low as 1-10 (10.0%). If they just make 66% of their free throws they win this game comfortably. They would have likely won in Raleigh too.
Conversely, the Tigers are .500 in ACC play and have already played four games against teams that KenPom ranks as the four best teams in the conference. Additionally, Hunter Tyson has been showing steady progress. He already led the team in defensive rebounding percentage (excluding Jonathan Baehre who has played sparingly). With his career-best performance tonight tacking up 21 points on 9-13 shooting with 5 rebounds we’re seeing the sophomore elevate his game.
Either way you look at it, the Tigers earned another conference victory and are one step closer to a post-season tournament.