It once seemed like a foregone conclusion that Clemson would be in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the 1997-98 season. Now, following Duke’s 71-66 victory at Littlejohn Coliseum, there is a real possibility the Tigers could miss getting invited to the NIT.
Clemson is 2-8 in its last 10 games and sits 19-8 overall and 5-8 in the ACC. The Tigers are just a game and a half away from being tied with Wake Forest for last in the conference. Making matters worse, the Demon Deacons actually have the tiebreaker over Clemson.
“We’re in a difficult spot in that we need to win some games and two of those last three are on the road,” said Tigers coach Oliver Purnell, who is still optimistic his team can get to the NCAA Tournament. “But it can be done. As I told the guys after the game, we need to go win a game. It doesn’t matter if it’s on Mars, we need to go win a game.”
For the first eight minutes of Thursday’s game, it appeared as though Clemson could get that needed win as it fought the No. 14 Blue Devils (21-7, 8-6 ACC) inch for inch.
Then, as has been the case all too often this year, the Tigers fell apart and resembled a jayvee team more than that of a Division I squad fighting for the postseason.
Tied at 13-13 with 11:52 left in the first half, Duke went on a 29-8 run as the Tigers missed 14 consecutive shots and didn’t hit another field goal until 1.1 seconds remained on the clock.
The Blue Devils held a 42-21 lead at intermission and there seemed no reason why things would or could be any different in the second half.
“I don’t think we could have played much better than we did for about 15 minutes of the first half,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
For Clemson, it would be difficult to think of a stretch this season where it played worse, including the 8:47 scoring drought which cost the Tigers the win against Virginia.
“We go through stretches in the game where the ball won’t fall in the hole and tonight it was just a longer stretch than normal where we couldn’t hit anything,” Clemson guard Cliff Hammonds said.
The Tigers looked like an entirely different team after intermission, as they turned the tables and went on a 21-5 run over the first 10 minutes to trim the lead to 47-42 and make it a brand new ball game.
The lead stayed within a point or two of that the rest of the way, but Clemson had a few chances to make it even closer. However, four turnovers in five possessions in the final four minutes prevented the completed comeback.
“Those four turnovers coming down the stretch really hurt us, because we kind of had them where we wanted them in terms of executing our offense,” Purnell said. “When they get that kind of working margin in the first half, you have to chase them and have to be near perfect. And they’re not chopped liver and they did a good job of knocking down their free throws at the end.”
The Tigers finished with five players scoring at least 10 points, with guards Vernon Hamilton and Hammonds leading the way with 14 each.
Duke guard Jon Scheyer led all scorers with 18 points, while teammates DeMarcus Nelson added 16 and Greg Paulus added 14.
Now, Clemson has a quick turnaround with a 1 p.m. game Saturday at Boston College. The Tigers also have one home game left when Miami comes to town Wednesday, before they close the regular season at Virginia Tech.
There is still an outside chance the Tigers can get to the NCAA Tournament provided they win at least two games and win at one in the ACC Tournament. However, there is also a chance they don’t go anywhere.
Even if the Tigers win one of their remaining three, it still may not be enough to get into the NIT.
The NIT has narrowed its field to 32 teams. Also, making the available spots even small is the rule that if a mid-major team wins its regular season but fails to win its conference tournament, it receives an automatic bid into the NIT.
There is absolutely no guarantee that if Clemson finishes 6-10 in the regular season and loses its first game in the ACC Tournament, that the Tigers will still make the NIT. Under that scenario, which is entirely possible, they will be 3-11 in their last 14.
What a dramatic turn the season has taken.
“We can still make it to the NCAA Tournament,” Clemson forward James Mays said. “We’ve got three games left and if we get all three of these games and do well in the ACC Tournament, who knows what could happen.”
CLEMSON PLAYER OF THE GAME: Cliff Hammonds
It seems like a broken record because every game, he seems to play the best and most consistent. Against Duke, he scored 14 points on 6-of-11 shooting, grabbed five rebounds and dished out nine assists. He also had two steals.
TURNING POINT: With just under 12 minutes left in the first half, Clemson didn’t score another field goal until there was one second before halftime. Duke outscored the Tigers 29-8 during that stretch.
QUOTE TO NOTE: “We’re not a great offensive team, we’ve said that from Day 1. We’re going to go through offensive dry spells. We’ve known that from Day 1, and that’s why we hang our hat on defense and rebounding. The times we go through dry spells, we’ve got to have stops. … And when you don’t get those and you go through dry spells, you’ve got problems,” Clemson coach Oliver Purnell said.