Clemson, which made just 17-of-34 free throw attempts, hit five of its final six in the last 18.5 seconds to prevent blowing a 17-point lead with just under eight minutes remaining and take the 74-70 victory over Syracuse Wednesday night in the third round of the NIT in a sold out Littlejohn Coliseum.
The Tigers (24-10) now advance to New York City to play at Mecca of basketball, Madison Square Garden, the world’s most famous arena. They will play Air Force Tuesday, which defeated DePaul 52-51 Wednesday.
“I’m going to buy a disposable camera,” said Clemson guard K.C. Rivers, who absolutely carried the team by scoring 29 points, 21 of which came in the first half. “A digital camera costs too much. Money is scarce right now.”
Enough can’t be said as to just how unbelievably hot Rivers was with his shooting, particularly in those opening 20 minutes, when he was 7-of-11 from the field, including 4-of-7 from 3-point range.
Just to illustrate how torrid his shooting was, he hit a fade-away 30-footer over a defender to beat the buzzer of the shot clock. He only made one of his five attempts in the second half, but it was a 3-point shot which banked in off the glass from the left wing.
“I found a rhythm. I had a feeling,” Rivers said. “I just had it going today.”
The way Rivers had it going Wednesday night was even better than Monday night, when Tigers guard Cliff Hammonds scored all 18 of his points in the first half against Mississippi.
“It was just that kind of night for him, everything he was throwing up was going in,” said Hammonds, who scored nine points, all of which came from 3-pointers. “We were just like, get him the ball. Find any kind of way to free him up for a second because you know everything that he’s going to put up is going in.”
Rivers also made two crucial free throws with 18.5 seconds left that put Clemson up three.
“After I made the first one, I took a deep (breath),” Rivers said. “I was just like, calm down. If you get this one in, you can shut them down on defense and it will all be over.”
And that’s exactly what happened. The Orange (24-11) came down, missed a 3-pointer and Vernon Hamilton grabbed the rebound. He was fouled with 6.3 seconds left to be sent to the free throw line.
The game wasn’t officially over, but just one made free throw would make it nearly impossible for Syracuse to get the win. He made both.
“I knew it was only a one-possession ballgame when they fouled me and when I went to the free throw line, I can’t think of anybody else that I’d want to be there right then other than myself, with it being my senior year,” Hamilton said. “I just wanted the pressure on me and I was able to knock them down.”
The free throws put an end to a furious comeback by Syracuse. With 7:45 left to play, Raymond Sykes’ slam dunk put Clemson up 58-41. But the Orange trimmed that lead to 10 and that’s when they started fouling on purpose to send one of the worst free throws shooting teams in the nation to the charity stripe.
The Tigers entered the game making just 58.8 percent of their free throws, which ranks 322 out of 325 Division I teams.
Before the final 18.5 seconds, Clemson was just 13-of-29 from the line, which helped allow the Orange to trim the lead to a single point with 1:18 left to play.
However, they were never able to tie it or take the lead as the Tigers did just enough to keep the slight advantage.
Clemson coach Oliver Purnell said he was confident his team would avoid the massive meltdown.
“We haven’t lost very many games where people chased us,” he said. “I remember the one where we lost to Virginia, but we haven’t lost very many games in that situation, so I felt very confident that sooner or later we’d make a play or make a free throw or make a score or whatever.”
What Purnell described as the biggest play of the game came from the hands of freshman David Potter with 28.2 seconds left.
Potter, who was forced into action because Hammonds had fouled out, crashed the boards when he saw forward Sam Perry dribbling the ball with the shot clock coming to an end.
As Perry’s wild shot drew no iron or backboard, Potter tipped it in just as the buzzer sounded to put the Tigers up 69-66.
“Had we gotten that rebound, I think we could have won the game,” said Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim.
It was just another one of those crucial plays down the stretch that went right for Clemson. And as a result, they are headed to the NIT semifinals for the first time since 1999.
“We’ve gotten better every year,” Purnell said. “And we’re not done yet.”
CLEMSON PLAYER OF THE GAME: K.C. Rivers
Could it really be anybody else? All the sophomore did was score 21 of his game-high 29 points in the first half. He also hit two very crucial free throws with 18.5 seconds left that put the Tigers up three. Rivers also pulled in four rebounds, sished out two assists, made two steals and had no turnovers in 35 minutes of play.
TURNING POINT: David Potter’s tip in off of Sam Perry’s air ball with 28.2 seconds remaining enabled the Tigers to keep the lead and have momentum for the final stretch.
QUOTE TO NOTE: “That was really nice. I’ve got a special place in my heart in terms of seeing him go to New York. Then to be one of the big reasons we held on to win this thing, that’s nice to see, because the other side of that coin isn’t real pretty – being a senior, last home game and doesn’t get it done. The good guy one,” Clemson coach Oliver Purnell said of point guard Vernon Hamilton, who sealed the victory with two free throws with 6.5 second left.