WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – This is why Clemson basketball is Clemson basketball. Just when it seems the Tigers are on the verge of doing something well, they revert to the same old team other ACC squads have known, loved and feasted on for more than 50 years.
In a game such as this, where Wakes Forest, the worst team in the ACC, gets the 67-65 upset victory Wednesday night at Joel Coliseum over a Clemson team fighting for the NCAA Tournament, there’s plenty of blame to go around.
“It hurts big time because we know we’re so much better than them,” Tigers forward James Mays said.
The mistakes were in abundance, starting with the last made basket of the game, where the defense by the Tigers was pretty poor.
Wake Forest point guard Ishmael Smith got by Vernon Hamilton and Cliff Hammonds with the dribble near the free throw line and dished it to a cutting Kyle Visser, who gave Clemson a gift by missing a wide-open reverse layup.
But on the miss, Michael Drum, who had done almost nothing for the Demon Deacons (12-13, 3-9 ACC), crashed the boards and got the uncontested offensive rebound and stick-back to give Wake Forest the lead with 3.4 seconds left.
“It’s like he came from nowhere,” said Hamilton, who led Clemson with 21 points and 10 rebounds. “Coach (Oliver Purnell) has been preaching about boxing out. I don’t know how many more times he’s got to say it. Somebody’s got to put a body on somebody.”
Following Drum’s heroics, the Tigers threw it in to K.C. Rivers, who streaked down the left sideline, hesitated near the 3-point line, and drove to the baseline, where he failed to get the shot off in time.
And even if he had shot it in time, Visser blocked it anyway.
“It’s tough to take losing on an offensive rebound,” Purnell said. “It’s just a typical road ACC game.”
It is the first loss to a bad team for Clemson (19-6, 5-6 ACC) this year. The Tigers also dropped from fifth in the standings to a three-way tie for sixth with Maryland and Georgia Tech.
“This loss is a big loss for our NCAA hopes,” Mays said. “It may come back to hurt us in the long run if we don’t finish off the last five games.”
Prior to the last play, Clemson went into another one of its famous scoring slumps.
Against Virginia, the Tigers failed to score a field goal over the last 8:47 and wound up blowing a 16-point lead.
Wednesday night, Clemson didn’t score a field goal and made just three free throws over the final 6:02.
The Tigers started the second half by making 11-of-17 from the field and wound up going 0-for-9 the rest of the way.
“It was tough trying to score some points,” Tigers forward Trevor Booker said. “With the Virginia game, it was pretty much the same thing. We just couldn’t get the ball in the hole.”
The biggest issue for Clemson was the way it shot from beyond the arc. It finished an awful 5-of-26 from 3-point range. Rivers and Hammonds were a combined 2-of-14 from 3-point range, with Rivers going 0-for-6.
However, from two-point range, the Tigers were pretty good. They made their first nine two-point attempts to start the second half and at one point had made 21 of their 31 two-point attempts.
“I don’t think that we necessarily tightened up,” Purnell said. “Sometimes you step up and make the money shots and sometimes you don’t. … It was a bad shooting night and sometimes that happens. We haven’t turned those shots down all year and we’re not going to.”
The Tigers held an eight-point lead with 5:13 left in the first half following a 3-pointer from the left baseline by Hamilton, which gave them a 33-25 advantage.
But Clemson had another dry spell and over its next seven possessions, produced no points, with three turnovers and four missed shots, three of which were from beyond the arc.
This allowed Wake Forest to climb back into the game and ultimately take the lead at 36-33, before the two teams went into halftime tied at 37-37.
From there, the Demon Deacons shot 37.9 percent from the field over the final 20 minutes and still won the game.
“It’s definitely an opportunity that we lost,” Hamilton said. “We should have won the game.”
CLEMSON PLAYER OF THE GAME: Vernon Hamilton
The senior point guard scored 21 points on 8-of-15 shooting and grabbed a game-high 10 rebounds. He also had three assists and a steal. He even made both of his free throw attempts.
TURNING POINT: With 6:02 left, Hamilton banked in a 3-pointer from the left wing to give Clemson a 62-56 lead. The Tigers never scored another field goal and didn’t register their first point until James Mays made 1-of-2 free throws with 1:31 remaining.
QUOTE TO NOTE: “We’ve got to win some games, there’s no question about that. But on the road in the ACC, I don’t consider this a bad loss,” Tigers coach Oliver Purnell said when asked if Clemson needed to steal a victory elsewhere to help its NCAA hopes following a bad loss to Wake Forest.