|by David Hood|
In other words – life goes on.
We are sitting here in the media room at the Garden, and Clemson coaches and players just marched past on their way to the team buses, each man lost in thought about a season that went further than expected but finishing in unexpected fashion as SMU rallied from a 12-point halftime deficit to claim a 65-59 victory in the semifinals of the NIT.
On second thought, maybe the loss was in a fashion that was expected as this Clemson team found a way to win with defense and heart, but it was never easy. The Tigers blew an 11-point lead against Pitt in the regular season finale, had blown a 10-point lead against Wake Forest earlier in March. However, Tuesday’s loss was the largest blown lead of the season, and despite the success the Tigers found in a season where success was unexpected, this one still stings.
The Tigers made 6-of-9 shots from 3-point range in the first half, and seemed determined to make SMU’s assertion late last week that the Tigers were offensively challenged look absurd. It didn’t look absurd in the second half as Clemson was just 2-of-11 from beyond the arc. In fact, it looked like the Tigers went away from driving to the basket, went away from the inside game, and looked for the open trey. That strategy didn’t work as SMU packed the middle, grabbed the rebounds (they outrebounded Clemson 35-25) and gradually put the game out of reach.
The Tigers shot 56 percent in the first half – there were two games earlier this season where the Tigers reached that kind of success in the first half – and in all three the Tigers wound up losing. Against SMU, the Tigers shot just 24 percent in the second half.
K.J. McDaniels – who has battled a shoulder injury late in the year – scored just 11 points as the Mustangs devoted most of their attention into stopping the Tigers’ leading scorer. As a result, McDaniels never looked in synch, and it was evident the Tigers missed the presence of the injured Jaron Blossomgame.
"At times I tried to force a few things, and I should have read the defense a lot better," McDaniels said. "Jaron, he definitely helps us with our rebounding and we feel like we can tell the difference when he's out there."
Brownell said the two halves showed the Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde nature of a young team.
“Tonight you saw the good and the bad a little bit of Clemson basketball this year,” Brownell said. “The first half we played as well as we can play. Offensively we shot the ball at a high level. I thought we guarded them very well, except for a couple of rough turnovers, we played great.
“The problem for our team is we are not consistently good offensively to match that sometimes, and then in the second half, you saw the team that sometimes rears its ugly head and we lose games in that light.”
However, Brownell made sure the media knew that this team overachieved.
“Well, it was an outstanding year. I think the only people that felt like we were going to have a good season this year were the players and the coaches,” he said. “We grinded – it’s a term our players use. We talked about it a lot as a team. Tonight you saw the good and the bad a little bit of Clemson basketball this year. The first half we played as well as we can play. Offensively we shot the ball at a high level. I thought we guarded them very well, except for a couple of rough turnovers, we played great.”
SMU head coach Larry Brown – a legend in basketball circles – said he likes what Brownell has done at Clemson.
““He’s great. I have a little North Carolina background, so I know what he did at Wilmington,” Brown said. “That is a young team. They are real young. They had a couple of tough losses late in the year or they might have been in the NCAA Tournament. That’s not an easy league, but I think they have it going in the right direction. I am amazed at the quality of coaches on the college level and with guys like him.”
As the traffic outside the Garden begins to thin and the sun sets on Clemson’s season, Brown’s thoughts on the Tigers ring true – they are a young team that relied on juniors to lead the way. If all of those juniors return next season – including the electric McDaniels – the future is as bright as the city lights.
David Hood can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org