Despite blowing a 21-point lead, Clemson shined defensively over the final six-plus minutes, and even made some of its free throws down the stretch to get the big 79-69 victory over a hot Miami team at a full Littlejohn Coliseum Wednesday night.
By getting the win over the Hurricanes (19-8, 6-7 ACC), who entered ranked No. 24 in the all important RPI, Clemson improves to 20-7 overall and 8-5 in the ACC and moves into sole possession of third place.
The eight league wins haven’t happened for the Tigers since the 1996-97 season. Also, nearly every prognosticator in the country believes Clemson needs just one more win to absolutely secure a spot in the NCAA Tournament, which hasn’t happened in Tigertown since 1998.
Though it must be stated that many believe this win has earned them a berth into the tournament.
“We’ve worked all year long to be in this position,” Clemson head coach Oliver Purnell said. “We control our own destiny. We don’t have to rely on anybody else. We just need to win and everything else will take care of itself.”
But getting the 20th win of the season for the second straight year, which has happened only one other time in school history, wasn’t easy, even though it looked as like it would be.
Clemson raced to a 10-0 start and eventually led by 21 points at 33-12 with 5:49 left in the opening half.
But to their credit, the Hurricanes (19-8, 6-7 ACC) whittled away and trimmed the advantage to 17 at 41-24 at halftime.
That surge kept coming in the second half as Miami junior guard Jack McClinton got hot and started nailing shots. He scored 16 of his 18 total points in the final 20 minutes.
At the same time, Clemson got careless with the ball, while the Hurricanes committed just three turnovers in the second half after committing 12 in the first.
And with 6:46 left to play, a McClinton 3-pointer from the right wing gave Miami its first lead of the game at 60-59.
“I don’t think we ever got rattled,” Purnell said. “We’ve been in these type games and we’ve won our share. Tonight was another example of that.”
That’s when Tigers senior Cliff Hammonds took matters into his own hands.
Just seconds after losing the lead, Hammonds drilled a 12-foot jumper from the right baseline to regain the advantage for Clemson.
On the ensuing possession by Miami, Hammonds blocked a driving shot by McClinton. The ball landed in the hands of K.C. Rivers, who was promptly fouled on the play.
He sank both of his free throws to push the lead to three, and the Tigers never looked back.
Rivers finished with a game-high 19 points on 5-of-8 shooting, including 4-of-5 from beyond the arc.
“To me, that block was the play of the game,” Purnell said. “I thought Cliff Hammonds did a whale of a job on McClinton. Even though he got his 18, his shooting percentage was not very good.”
Over the last four minutes, Clemson scored all of its final 10 points from the free throw line. All told, the Tigers made 17 of their final 24 free throws (70.8 percent), which is a far cry from their league-worst 62.5 percent.
“We could have folded, but that’s not the type of team we are,” said Hammonds, who scored 12 points, dished out six assists, grabbed four rebounds and had one very important block. “We battled to the end.”