TAMPA, Fla. – For what seems like the umpteenth time this year, the Clemson basketball team finds itself on the business end of an officiating error. This time, however, it will likely cost the Tigers a trip to the NCAA Tournament.
With 1.5 seconds left in a tied ballgame, Clemson’s K.C. Rivers was called for committing a foul on Florida State’s Al Thornton by referee Sean Hull. The only problem is that Rivers never touched the Seminole.
So, after missing the first free throw, Thornton drained the second to give No. 9 seed Florida State the 67-66 victory over the No. 8 Tigers Thursday afternoon in the first round in the ACC Tournament at the St. Pete Times Forum.
“I slide my feet and I kept moving and did everything to keep away and from touching him,” Rivers said. “I don’t even know where the foul came from or what they called. Do ya’ll know? …
“For one, I didn’t have my hands up, I had my hands behind me and was fading away, so there’s no possible way. That’s a tough way to go out.”
Even Thornton said he was surprised when he heard the whistle blow.
“Usually you don’t get that call,” he said. “I thought it was going to go overtime. I think the ref was letting us play throughout the game, so I thought it was going to go to overtime. I was kind of shocked that I did get that call.”
Tigers coach Oliver Purnell was so flabbergasted that he did all he could do to keep from saying something that would get him in trouble.
“It’s hard to take losing a hard-fought ballgame that way,” he said. “That’s pretty much as much as I can say about it.”
But, as has been the case in so many games this year, had Clemson (21-10) scored just a basket or two over the final four minutes, the outcome probably would have been different.
The Tigers didn’t score a single point over the final 4:03, and as a result, blew a five-point lead.
On Clemson’s final six possessions, it had two missed contested layups, a shot blocked, a missed three-quarters court shot and two turnovers, the last of which was an over-and-back call on Cliff Hammonds after he fumbled a pass from Vernon Hamilton near the halfcourt circle with 8.3 seconds left.
The pass from Hamilton was low and it short-hopped Hammonds, who had the ball bound of his leg and go into the backcourt.
“I guess I took my eye off the ball or something,” said a very dejected Hammonds, who had 16 points.
Those final four minutes notwithstanding, it didn’t help Clemson’s cause that Mays, who was averaging 12.8 points a game, only scored three points, the first of which didn’t come until 12:17 left in the second half.
Rivers particularly struggled in the first half, where he had just two points on 1-of-5 shooting. He finished with nine points and 10 rebounds on 4-of-10 shooting.
“I don’t want to blame this on the referee or nothing,” Rivers said. “We chose our own destiny with the turnover with eight seconds left and we didn’t score on the last two possessions.”
Thankfully for the Tigers, Hammonds, Booker’s 18 points and nine rebounds and Hamilton’s 13 points allowed them to stand toe-to-toe with Florida State (20-11) and have the lead until the final minutes.
The question Clemson didn’t seem to have an answer for was that of Thornton, who poured in 18 points in the first half and finished with 25 while also grabbing 11 rebounds.
He also hit the game-winning free throw 1.5 seconds left to severely damage Clemson’s NCAA Tournament dreams.
“It was a tough call in a game like this,” Mays said. “They let us play the whole game and then to call a call like that at the end is crazy.”