Losses like Thursday night can be expected. After all, it was at Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium, with Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski lurking on the sidelines. But what transpired Sunday at Littlejohn Coliseum against Virginia isn’t supposed to happen, even for a program that has very little basketball tradition.
The Cavaliers outscored No. 17 Clemson 15-0 over the final five minutes to complete one of the biggest collapses in Tigers history as Virginia escaped with a 64-63 victory. It is the type of loss that could be felt for the rest of the season.
“We’ve got to get back together and regroup,” Clemson coach Oliver Purnell said. “It’s probably fortunate that we have a week off before we play again.”
Jason Cain’s offensive rebound and stick-back with 15.5 seconds left gave the Cavaliers (13-6, 5-2 ACC) the one-point lead. Cain’s offensive rebound was the second by Virginia in that possession and it’s something that once again doomed the Tigers, much as it did at Duke.
The Cavaliers grabbed 15 offensive rebounds, to Clemson’s 10.
“Rebounding continues to plague us,” Purnell said. “It really came back to bite us in the second half, particularly on that last play.”
The Tigers (18-4, 4-4 ACC) have now dropped four of their last five conference games and are in real danger of dipping below .500 as a tough game at Georgia Tech awaits them Saturday afternoon.
“It’s important how we finish these last eight games,” said Clemson point guard Vernon Hamilton, who led the team with 16 points. “That will determine how far we go at the end of the season.”
The Tigers had a shot to retake the lead, but a running 5-foot shot from Hamilton was off and Virginia got the rebound with 8.6 seconds remaining. At that point, the problem facing Clemson was that it was still two fouls away from putting the Cavaliers into the bonus.
After a timeout in which Purnell laid out the defensive plans, which was to foul immediately, the Tigers didn’t listen and Virginia ran the clock down to 0.7 second left, which essentially ended the game.
“It was a tremendous, gutty effort by our guys,” Virginia coach Dave Leitao said. “I’ve been fortunate to be apart of a lot of great games, but I don’t know if I’ve ever seen one like that. …
“I don’t have a great memory, but I don’t think I can remember anything like that.”
The Cavaliers were all but dead, so much so that during one timeout late in the game, Leitao told his players that even though they were only down 11 points, it felt more like 40.
But tables quickly turned. Just as Clemson went in the tank offensively, the Cavaliers found their stroke.
Over the final 8:45 seconds for the Tigers, they were 0-for-8 from the field and 2-for-5 from the free throw line, which included missing their last three attempts.
They also had three turnovers, none more critical than with Clemson holding a one-point lead and guard K.C. Rivers inadvertently stepped out of bounds with 31.1 seconds left to give the ball to the Cavaliers.
“We had an opportunity to put the game away,” said Tigers forward James Mays, who had 12 points, 10 rebounds and five turnovers. “That’s what hurts so bad in the long run. We weren’t able to finish them off.”
Conversely, over the final four minutes for Virginia, it scored on all six remaining possessions by going 6-of-7 from the field, including 3-of-4 from 3-point range.
“We let up on the defense and we didn’t press on the offensive end,” Hamilton said. “For us to be able to have a lead like we did and not be able to hold it says a lot right there.”
Clemson built its 61-45 by attacking the Cavalier defense. The Tigers got the Cavaliers in foul trouble pushing the issue with Hamilton out top and Mays down low. Virginia, it seemed had nary an answer for either.
Clemson scored on 12-of-17 possessions to start the final 20 minutes and looked as though they were going to cruise to the win. But that’s when things went terribly wrong.
The Tigers started milking the shot clock and got out of sync some offensively. They were forcing some bad shots and Virginia was snaring the rebounds. Clemson also had some open shots in close and on the perimeter, but they rattled out, too.
“We got some pretty good looks,” Purnell said. “But when the lid goes on the basket, you’ve got to stop them from scoring.”
CLEMSON PLAYER OF THE GAME:Cliff Hammonds
Steady Cliff had 13 points on 5-of-9 shooting, including 3-of-6 from 3-point range. He also had four rebounds, two assists, a steal and no turnovers. Defensively, he did a sold job as well.
TURNING POINT: Up 63-49 with a little more than four minutes left, Clemson had two chances in one possession to increase its lead, but Hamilton missed a 3-pointer and Hammonds missed a running 5-footer. Virginia got the ball and Adrian Joseph drilled a 3-pointer from the right corner to start the Cavaliers on their roll.
QUOTE TO NOTE: “We’ve got eight games left in the ACC and we’ve got to win some games. It’s as simple as that,” Clemson coach Oliver Purnell said.