It was the first loss of the season for the Tigers, which drop to 11-1 overall. But it’s the loss of Mays that will likely affect the team for the remainder of the year. Somehow, Clemson has to find somebody to replace his 9.2 points and 7.6 rebounds per game.
“James just didn’t do well in his finals and was ruled academically ineligible,” Clemson coach Oliver Purnell said. “We’ve got to get past that. It was a new challenge tonight playing without James and it will be a new challenge Friday night because it’s the first time we’ll play after a loss. We’ll see how we react with a one-day turnaround and I hope we react the right way.”
Purnell said he doesn’t know if Mays will still practice with the team in the spring semester or even be in school.
“He’s doing well and just staying positive,” said Clemson forward Sam Perry, how Mays’ roommate. “I don’t know the ins-and-outs of the situation obviously, but we want to keep him.”
Even with the news that Mays is gone, the Tigers still had a shot down the stretch to pull out the win.
Trailing 70-69 with less than 20 seconds to plays, Clemson guard Vernon Hamilton shot a high floater in the lane that came up short, which resulted in a Bulldogs layup at the other end to make it 72-69 with 11.6 seconds left.
On their ensuing possession, the Tigers called a play for Shawan Robinson to hoist a three-point to try and tie the game. But as he curled around a screen on the left wing, he was pushed out further than he wanted and wound up taking a 27-foot shot that drew nothing but air to end the game.
“It was kind of deep and it was an air ball,” Robinson said. “I’ll take the blame.”
The Tigers didn’t score a field goal in the final 1:46.
It was evident from the outset that the absence of Mays is going to alter the way this team plays the rest of the year. The starting lineup had usual small forward Perry, who scored 11 points, playing at Mays’ power forward spot and K.C. Rivers, who led the team with 14 points, going from guard to small forward.
It’s not a big lineup, which is one reason Georgia (8-3) grabbed 18 offensive rebounds and 43 overall. The Bulldogs outscored Clemson 27-13 in second chance points.
It was a total team effort on the boards for the Bulldogs, who had seven players with at least four rebounds each and nine with at least three each.
“It was a game where I thought our defense let us down a little bit there in the second half,” Purnell said. “We need one or two stops. There were four, five, six possessions where we made them miss and them come up with the long rebound. And that’s something we talked about before the game.”
Offensively, Georgia was led by star freshman Mike Mercer, who scored 22 points on 9-of-13 shooting from the field, including 3-of-4 from behind the arc. Guard Levi Stukes added 17 points and six rebounds.
Clemson struggled from three-point range, going just 6-of-20 and from the free throw line, where it converted just 11-of-19 attempts. Nonetheless, it still managed a 33-33 tie at halftime.
Midway through the second half with the Bulldogs leading 54-48, they went into a four-minute scoring drought. However, Clemson failed to gain any ground as it missed six field goals, turned it over three times and missed three-of-four from the free throw line.
“I thought that was a key stretch,” Purnell said. “We’re going to have that all year long where we’re dry and that’s when you have to be coming up with stops – seven and eight in a row.”
Without the services of Mays, for now on, that’s going to be much harder.
“Obviously we missed James Mays,” Perry said. “Ten (points) and eight (rebounds), that’s tough to replace. … We kind of feed off each other and it felt kind of strange for him not to come out there with me.
“Hopefully we’ll get him back.”
Clemson gets a chance to redeem itself with a home game against Elon Friday night.
“We lost one and it’s a lesson learned,” Robinson said. “We’ll bounce back.”