|by David Hood|
Clemson blew a 12-point halftime lead and had a deadly six-minute field goal drought late in the second half as SMU defeated Clemson 65-59 in the semifinals of the NIT at Madison Square Garden Tuesday night.
The Tigers had scored 38 points in a fast-moving first half, but were outscored 39-21 in the deciding second half. Clemson finishes the season with a 23-13 record, while the Mustangs advance to the NIT finals with a 27-9 record.
Clemson head coach Brad Brownell told the media after the game that it was a tale of two halves for his team and that he is disappointed that the season his over.
"It was a disappointing loss tonight, partly because it ends our season," Brownell said. "I thought we played exceptional basketball during the first half. We shot it really well and really played about as well as we can play. We didn’t get off to a good start in the second half. Unfortunately, we saw the second side of our team this year. We struggle offensively at times and we just didn’t shoot the ball well in the second half. Certainly, some of that credit goes to SMU and then some of it is us missing some shots. I also thought we weren’t as good on the boards. We were a little bit smaller in our lineup than we usually are with K.J. playing the four and that hurt us as well."
Rod Hall’s 18 points led the Tigers, while K.J. McDaniels added 11 and Landry Nnoko and Damarcus Harrison added 10 apiece for the Tigers.
Brownell said that a lot of his team's success this season was due to the leadership and growth of McDaniels and Hall.
"I couldn’t be more proud of these guys next to me [McDaniels and Hall]," Brownell said. "They are tremendous leaders and tremendous young men who really had outstanding seasons. They really helped me will this team to a surprising strong finish in our league and a couple of baskets away from playing for an NIT title."
SMU had taken a 58-55 lead on a layup by Markus Kennedy with 1:26 remaining, but Nic Moore missed a free throw with 27 seconds remaining that would have put the game out of reach. K.J. McDaniels made the Mustangs pay with a dunk on the offensive end that made it 58-57 with 22 seconds remaining.
However, Nick Russell was fouled with 14 seconds remaining and drained both for a 60-57 lead, and the Mustangs fouled Rod Hall with 8.2 second left, sending him to the line with the Tigers down three. Hall hit both to make it 60-59, but the Tigers let Kennedy get loose on the inbounds play and he was fouled by McDaniels while hitting the game-sealing layup with 7.2 seconds left to play.
Kennedy hit the free throw, making it 63-59, and the Tigers then threw the ball out of bounds, making the final 4.7 seconds a mere formality.
The Tigers jumped out to a 7-0 lead by putting an early physical stamp on the game. However, the Mustangs battled back and the Tigers led just 10-9 at the first media timeout. The Tigers eventually led 19-18 midway through the half.
The Mustangs had chances to take the lead three straight times down the floor, but the Tigers held and started a 19-8 run to close out the half. A key moment for both teams was when SMU big man Markus Kennedy picked up his second foul with a little over seven minutes remaining. His absence allowed the Tigers to move the ball on the perimeter, and they took advantage as Harrison hit two 3-pointers – the last with just one second remaining in the half – taking a 38-26 lead into intermission.
The Mustangs came out of the locker room and went on a 9-3 run during the first three minutes that trimmed Clemson’s lead to just six at 41-35, prompting a visibly frustrated Brownell to call a timeout.
"I think in the first half Clemson did about as well as any team we have played against all year," SMU coach Larry Brown said. "They had more energy. They executed great and we didn’t have much to say at halftime except to say we had to match their energy. It [second half] was the best half we played all year. To hold them to 21 after the way they dominated in the first half was exciting."
The game went back-and-forth over the next nine minutes, but SMU began to find the range from beyond the arc and eventually tied the score at 45-45 on a 3-pointer by Nick Russell midway through the half. Two minutes later, with the score tied at 47, Rod Hall put the Tigers back up by three on a 3-pointer from the right wing.
However, the Mustangs wouldn’t go away, and when Kennedy hit two foul shots with just over five minutes remaining, SMU had its first lead of the contest at 55-53.
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David Hood can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org