Because if Clemson plays any worse than it did in its first-round game, the Tigers might not break the 40-point barrier their next time out.
Following one of the more horrific halves in the annals of Division I basketball, the No. 1-seed Tigers settled down and played somewhat better in the second half to pull out the 64-57 victory over No. 8-seed East Tennessee State Wednesday night in a half-empty Littlejohn Coliseum.
“It wasn’t a work of art,” Purnell said. “But I’m grateful for the win.”
Clemson (22-10) advances to the second round, which will be played at Littlejohn Coliseum Monday night against Mississippi.
For a while, though, it looked like there might not be a second round. But thankfully for the Tigers, sophomore guard K.C. Rivers, junior guard Cliff Hammonds and freshman forward Trevor Booker carried the team, while the rest struggled to do much of anything positive.
Rivers scored 17 points and was the only starter to shoot at least 50 percent from the field. He went 8-of-16 from the floor to score 17 points, but he also grabbed a career-high 14 rebounds. He also had three assists and three steals.
“I just tried to help out my team any way I could,” he said. “I did it all tonight.”
It was a 3-point shot from the right wing by Hammonds with 5:59 to play that gave Clemson a 51-49 lead. The Tigers never trailed again.
Booker was absent in the first half, which put him in line with his teammates. But with the game on the line, he emerged as a force.
From the 7:20 mark to 4:17 left to play, he scored eight of the team’s 11 points to keep the Tigers ahead of the Buccaneers (24-10). He finished with 11 points and 11 rebounds, seven of which were offensive.
“He’s just a guy, that honestly, we didn’t have a matchup for,” ETSU coach Murry Bartow said. “If we had a guy like Booker, we’d probably be undefeated in the league. He is what every coach wants.”
As a team, Clemson grabbed a season-high 51 rebounds, 19 of which were on the offensive end. The Bucs grabbed 32 total rebounds.
“Obviously the glass was the difference in the game,” Bartow said. “We didn’t think we’d get hurt on the first shot, but the second and third shots would. We knew coming in where that could be a real problem for us and it was.”
A headache for both teams was the first half of play, where they combined for 22 turnovers, 13 by Clemson, 34 percent shooting from field and 5-of-23 from 3-point range.
It was so bad for the Tigers that Purnell emptied his bench and played 12 players, including Karolis Petrukonis, who hadn’t seen but three minutes of playing time since Christmas Eve.
During one stretch late in the first half, Clemson was 1-for-15 from the field, with two turnovers. There were also two airballs and 3-point shot that hit only the backboard during that span.
Nonetheless, the Tigers played better in the second half, particularly down the stretch, and got the win.
“It was just something we had to do,” said Hammonds, who finished with 12 points. “It’s do-or-die right now. We’re not ready to go home. We’re going to fight our way to New York.”
CLEMSON PLAYER OF THE GAME: K.C. Rivers
The sophomore was 8-of-16 from the field and scored a team-high 17 points. The guard also pulled down a career-high 14 rebounds, while handing out three assists and getting three steals in 36 minutes of play.
Immediately following East Tennessee State grabbing a 49-48 lead, Clemson guard Cliff Hammonds came down the court and drained a 3-pointer from the right wing with 5:59 left to play to give the Tigers a 51-49 lead. They never again trailed.
QUOTE TO NOTE
“I told them after the brackets came out that we have a choice: We can stay the same, move backwards or move forward. This gives us a chance to move forward,” Clemson coach Oliver Purnell said.