Elon, a 22-point underdog, came to town with its wins over Southeastern College, a Christian liberal arts college in Lakeland, Fla., and Guilford, both of which are non-Division I. The Sagarin ranking for the Phoenix was 313th out of 334 Division I school.
There was no reason to suspect the school formally known as the Fighting Christians would leave Littlejohn Coliseum with a 74-69 victory over Clemson Friday night, even without the services of Mays.
“Obviously to lose James Mays is a big loss, but we’ve got to put that behind us,” said Tigers forward Sam Perry, Mays’ roommate. “The James Mays thing, that’s not an excuse.”
Clemson, which started the season 11-0, has lost two games in the last three days and has seen what was once a promising season turn desperate very fast. The Tigers now stand 11-2.
“I’m really at a loss for words,” said Tigers point guard Vernon Hamilton, who led the team with 13 points. “It’s a very disappointing loss. It’s definitely a loss we didn’t want to have to face, especially back-to-back after Georgia.”
And even though Clemson is still more talented than the Phoenix without Mays, who is academically ineligible for the second semester, his absence was noticeable for the second straight game.
Against Georgia, the Tigers could buy a rebound. The Bulldogs grabbed 18 offensive rebounds and won because of it.
That problem against Elon (3-9) was solved as it had no offensive rebounds at halftime and just six for the game. This time, it was the ability of the Phoenix to score in the post with relative ease that was the issue.
The inside trio of Chris Chalko, Colin Wyatt and Jackson Atoyebi went a combined 16-of-24 from the field for 40 points and 18 rebounds against a Maysless defense.
Wyatt and guard Montell Watson each scored 15 points, while Chalko added 13 points, Atoyebi 12 points and guard Brian Waters 11 points.
“For us to have six guys in double figures … I don’t know if we’ve had a game with three,” said Elon coach Ernie Nester. “Our guys weren’t intimidated.”
The one thing Mays’ absence didn’t alter was Clemson’s outside shooting, which has struggled all season. The Tigers shot just 35.9 percent from the field, including 8-of-24 from three-point range.
Elon shot 52 percent from the floor and was 7-of-14 from beyond the arc.
“I don’t think (Mays) was the missing ingredient tonight,” Clemson coach Oliver Purnell said. “Their ability to score inside was really surprising, especially on Steve (Allen) and Akin (Akingbala).
Elon’s belief in itself after the Tigers grabbed a 52-51 lead on a Shawan Robinson three-pointer with 10:46 left to play.
The Phoenix then outscored Clemson 11-2 over the next 4:16 to snare a 62-54 lead with just 6:30 remaining. The lead eventually got as high as 12 at 69-57 with 3:07 remaining.
Down the stretch, the Tigers went 10 minutes with only made field goals.
“When you get behind, you become very impatient and that’s what happened to us tonight,” Purnell said.
From the outset, it was evident the Phoenix had come to play.
They went on a 10-2 run early in the first half to grab a 19-10 lead with 12:16 left until intermission. However, Clemson managed to bounce back and over the final 10 minutes swapped the lead with the Phoenix and went into intermission with a 36-35 lead.
During that uneventful first half, Elon grabbed zero offensive rebounds, but hit 6-of-9 from three-point range. Conversely, the Tigers were 5-of-13 from beyond the arc.
“We’re not very good right now,” Purnell said. “Bug we’ve got four days to get back to playing Clemson basketball.”
The Tigers begin ACC play 7:30 p.m., Wednesday night at Littlejohn Coliseum against Florida State, a game in which the Tigers would have been favored three days ago.