CLEMSON – For the second straight home game, the Clemson basketball team made just one field goal over the final six minutes of the game. This time, however, they didn’t need to do much more as the Tigers came through from the free throw line.
Clemson, which entered the game as the worst free throw shooting team in the ACC and one of the worst in the nation at 59.3 percent, made 12-of-17 (70.6 percent) over the final 4:01 to prevent any comeback by Florida State and get the 71-58 victory Wednesday night at Littlejohn Coliseum.
“I thought it was a very good win for us,” Clemson head coach Oliver Purnell said. “I thought it was more typical of what we were use to seeing earlier in the season.”
It may have been the most important victory of the year for the Tigers, who had lost five of their previous six games and had dipped below .500 in the conference. As it stands now, Clemson is 19-5 overall and 5-5 in the ACC.
The win may have saved the NCAA hopes for the Tigers. A loss to Florida State (7-7, 5-5 ACC), which entered having won five of its last six, and Clemson would have had to four of its last six just to be considered for the big dance.
“We needed to get a win for a number of reasons,” Purnell said. “The conference race, confidence, resume stuffer and it sets up where you can make a run.”
Over those final four minutes, Cliff Hammonds went 4-for-5 from the line, while teammate James Mays was 2-for-2. Also, Trevor Booker went 1-for-2 and Vernon Hamilton 4-of-7.
And even though Hamilton missed three, including two in one trip, he made three big ones in the final 1:07 that pushed it from a six-point lead to a nine-point lead.
“I took a deep breath and went to the line and I made one and then I made two and I just got into a rhythm,” said Hamilton, who finished with 11 points. “It was crunch time and you’ve got to be able to make free throws down the stretch if you want to win games.”
The game was also a setting where guard K.C. Rivers seemed to once again find his shooting touch.
The sophomore guard, who had reached double figures only once in his last five games and was just averaging 7.4 points per game during that span. He was also shooting just 34.8 percent from the field and had made just 3-of-21 shots from 3-point range.
Tuesday afternoon he said the game hadn’t been fun for him. All that changed against the Seminoles.
“I haven’t felt like that in I don’t know how long,” said Rivers, who scored a team-high 21 points on 8-of-11 shooting. “It feels real good to have fun again.”
Rather than settling for the long-range shot, of which he only took three, Rivers got the majority of his points driving to the hoop.
“You’ve got to take what you’ve got,” Rivers said. “I felt like I had driving lanes tonight, so I took them.”
The other big producer for the Tigers was Hammonds, who scored 16 points and went 6-of-7 from the free throw line. He also hit a big shot while being fouled with 2:32 left to play that put Clemson up nine.
It was also Hammonds’ hot shooting in the first half, along with Rivers, that helped propelled Clemson to the 36-25 lead at halftime.
All in all, it was exactly what this program sorely needed. There was a lot riding on this and the Tigers came through.
“Basketball is a game of mistakes and it’s how you react to it that determines whether you win or lose,” Purnell said. “And I thought we reacted well.”
CLEMSON PLAYER OF THE GAME:K.C. Rivers
The sophomore found his scoring touch again after having struggled in his previous five games. Rivers made 8-of-11 from the field to score a team-high 17 points. With him making shots, the Seminoles had to respect his outside threat, which allowed Clemson to open things up in the middle. It’s pretty simple, when he plays well, so do the Tigers.
TURNING POINT: Up 55-50 with 4:01 remaining and struggling to find any sort of offensive game, Clemson made 12-of-17 free throws down the stretch to keep Florida State at arms length.
QUOTE TO NOTE: “We’ve lost five of our last six and this is all we needed. Hopefully this will catapult us,” Clemson forward James Mays said.