The Clemson basketball team didn’t enter the year with high expectations, however a 4-0 start following by a dominant first half against St. Bonaventure gave fans reason to believe this team may be better than expected. Even after they blew the St. Bonaventure game late in the second half their ability to play with them gave some hope.
Unfortunately, they lost to West Virginia in similar fashion. Then, following a win against Charleston Southern, losses at Rutgers and Miami put the season on the brink. The Tigers traveled to Atlanta for a “Greenlight Holiday Hoopsgiving” game against the Drake Bulldogs sitting at just 5-4.
Drake entered the game ranked No. 76 in KenPom’s team rankings making them the Tigers last chance for a top 100 win in non-conference play. The Tigers two best wins — Wofford and Temple — haven’t aged well and U of SC is down this year. If the Tigers were going to get a quality non-conference win, this had to be it.
The game began relatively well. The Tigers offense was not stagnant, didn’t force threes, and found PJ Hall in the paint. The Tigers held an eight-point lead late the first half, but Drake took the momentum with an 8-0 run that tied it 32-32. Clemson countered with a 7-0 run to close out the half and give them a 39-32 halftime lead. PJ Hall had 7 first half rebounds, Dawes had 13 first half points, and Alex Hemenway was 3-3 from 3-point territory.
The Tigers sustained the strong play and even pushed the lead to 70-60 with just 4:20 remaining. Unfortunately, the specter of all the past blown leads from this season loomed large. Just as the thought crossed the minds of Clemson fans, the Drake comeback began. In just over two minutes, the Bulldogs went on a 7-0 run to cut the lead to 70-67.
Clemson didn’t completely fold though. The offense worked the ball to Hall in the post who drew a foul and knocked down both free throws putting Clemson back up by 5. Drake got to the line and made two free throws on the ensuing possession to cut it back down to 3.
After Nick Honor dribbled the ball off his foot out-of-bounds, a rarely seen play occurred. Drake set a screen near the 3-point line to get an open 3-point look for their star freshman, Tucker Devries. David Collins tried to fight through the screen and pushed the player setting the screen into the shooter. The 3-pointer was missed, but a foul was called. After a lengthy review, it was determined that it would be a two-shot off-ball foul since Collins did not foul the shooter. Sturtz, the player who set the screen, went to the line and made both free throws narrowing the score to 72-71 with Clemson ahead by just 1 point.
On the Tigers next possession, Nick Honor attacked the basket and was stripped as he lifted the ball to attempt a shot. The referees gifted Clemson a foul and Honor made both free throws. Now needing a 3-pointer to tie the game with less than 30 seconds remaining, Drake drove to the basket and then kicked out to a wide open shooter at the top of the 3-point line. Clemson should have surrendered the lay-up to avoid giving up a wide open 3-point look, but made a mental mistake. The pass hit him in the chest and the game-tying 3-pointer went through the net, 74-74.
Clemson called a timeout and had just 0:08 to score the game-winning basket. They got the ball to PJ Hall in the paint as desired. As he turned and shot, the defender smacked him on the shooting elbow causing an air ball. Ironically, no call was made and the Clemson bench went ballistic. After a cross-court pass failed for Drake the game went into overtime.
Given past collapses and the way regulation had just ended, it seemed like another gut-wrenching loss was on the way. Instead, Clemson scored the first 5 points of overtime and didn’t falter. After an emphatic dunk by Garrett Sturtz cut Clemson’s lead down to 3, Al-Amir Dawes and Nick Honor made 3-pointers to push the lead to 9 and ice the game. Clemson escaped Atlanta with a 90-80 win giving them their best victory of the season thus far.
PJ Hall led the way for Clemson playing 39 minutes, gathering 13 rebounds, making 9-9 from the free throw line, and scoring 22 points. Dawes scored 19 with 5 assists while David Collins added 16 points with 10 rebounds. Honor and Hemenway each chipped in 12 points while Hunter Tyson had an uncharacteristically quiet game with just 3 points in 22 minutes.
The Tigers host Miami (OH) on Tuesday before closing out non-conference play at home against the Gamecocks on Saturday. It is critical they win both of those games and get to 8-4 before they face Virginia, Duke, and Virginia again to begin a stretch of 19-consecutive ACC games.