K.C. Rivers and Terrence Oglesby each missed open shots in the final 25 seconds that would have tied the game late and possibly forced overtime.
As a result Georgia Tech got the 80-75 victory Thursday night at a barely half full Alexander Memorial Coliseum, despite the performance of guard Cliff Hammonds, who produced one of the gutsiest games by anyone, anywhere all season.
“We had some good looks at the basket,” Purnell said. “(Oglesby) had a great look; I thought we got the ball exactly where we wanted to. I thought we got the ball exactly where we wanted to with K.C. on the out-of-bounds play, and we didn’t convert.”
The Tigers (21-8, 9-6 ACC) were just one win shy of clinching a first-round bye in the ACC Tournament next week in Charlotte entering their game. They’re still one game away.
Clemson must win at home in the regular season finale against a surging Virginia Tech (18-11, 9-6 ACC) team to ensure a first-round bye in the conference tournament.
Should the Tigers lose, there’s a real chance they could fall to fifth place in the standings, meaning they would have to play Thursday in the opening round of the tournament.
If Clemson loses to the Hokies, the Tigers will do just that if Miami (21-8, 8-7 ACC) wins at Florida State (17-13, 6-9 ACC) Saturday afternoon, because the Hurricanes own the tiebreaker as a result of beating Duke, which sits higher in the standings than Miami and Clemson.
“We’ve got one game left, I hope we fight,” Clemson coach Oliver Purnell said. “Obviously we can win that game and we’re in good shape going into the tournament. That’s what we have to focus on.”
However, if certain aspects of Thursday night’s game come shining through once again, the Tigers could be in for a heartbreaking Senior Day.
Purnell best described his team’s defensive play when he kept calling it “porous” over and over again.
After racing to a 13-point lead in the first half, Georgia Tech (13-6, 6-9 ACC) cut the halftime deficit to 44-40 due to shooting a flat 60 percent from the field. Of course, it’s easy to shoot rather well when all the shots are either uncontested or from within a foot or two of the basket.
“When we got a 13-point lead, we slacked up,” Hammonds. “We thought we could outscore them. What happens tonight happens when we don’t do what got us here by buckling down on defense. It’s disappointing that it happened now.”
The Tigers fell behind for good midway through the second half, but were always within a possession or two of tying or retaking the lead.
And with 26 seconds left to play, Oglesby missed an open 3-pointer from the right wing that would have tied it at 76.
Even so, Clemson had one more shot to tie it or take the lead with 20.2 seconds to play.
The Tigers had the ball behind their own basket following a timeout and the inbounds pass went to Rivers under the basket. He tried a reverse layup and it came up short and landed into the waiting hands of Georgia Tech’s Jeremis Smith to all but end the game.
There were no game-saving shots this time, but there was a heroic effort by Hammonds, nonetheless.
The senior played the entire game despite breaking his wrist Sunday. If that weren’t enough, he broke half of a tooth and got knocked into La La Land with 2:41 left to play.
He stumbled into the locker room, clearly in a daze, to get looked at by the medical staff. Moments later, he trotted back out onto the court to finish the closing moments. He allowed Clemson a chance to win by getting offensive rebounds for second chance points.
He finished as Clemson’s leading scorer with 15 points. He also had eight rebounds, three of which were offensive, three assists and two steals. The only thing he didn’t do was make crucial free throws down the stretch.
“I missed those free throws,” he said. “I need to be held accountable.”
Rivers, who had a poor outing for the second straight game, also took much of the blame for the loss. He finished with five points and two rebounds.
“I haven’t been here offensively and defensively the last two games,” he said. “I haven’t been preparing. I let my teammates down. I’m not giving them what I own them. I’ve got to be focused and contribute to my teammates. That’s what I owe them.
“I’ve got to do a lot of soul searching. It’s important for me to help out.”