Clemson Holds Off Syracuse, Advances To NIT Final Four


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CLEMSON - It will be intriguing to see how Clemson's high-wire act plays in the Big Apple.

The Tigers built a 17-point lead in the second half, blew all but one point of it, then made just enough big plays down the stretch to hold off No. 2 seed Syracuse, 74-70 Wednesday night in the quarterfinals of the Mastercard NIT.

The game was played before an announced crowd of 10,000 at Littlejohn Coliseum.

Clemson (24-10), the No. 1 seed in the South Region, will face either Air Force or DePaul in the semifinals next Tuesday at New York's Madison Square Garden. West Virginia and Mississippi State will meet in the other semifinal.

"It was a thrilling win. I thought we played extremely well for most of the basketball game," said Clemson head coach Oliver Purnell. "Then there were a couple of things we did to make it interesting, and Jim (Boeheim) did a good job with his fouling and his timeouts...We finally stepped up to make free throws to hold them off."

The Tigers seemed well on their way to a second straight rout as it ran through the NIT bracket, jumping ahead 58-41 at the 7:55 mark on a tomahawk jam in transition by Raymond Sykes.

But Syracuse would put together a strong finish, helped along by yet another evening of awful free throw shooting by Clemson, to make a game of it down the stretch.

They began by running off a 13-2 spurt over almost four minutes, stretch that was fueled by a technical foul called on Tigers' center Trevor Booker for hanging on the rim after missing a dunk. Demetris Nichols hit 1-of-2 technical free throws, then Eric Devendorf added a jumper to pull the Orange within 60-52.

It got to 60-53 before James Mays momentarily stopped the bleeding with three straight points for Clemson to push the lead back to 10. But again Syracuse would answer, this time with an 11-3 run that cut the Tigers' lead to 66-64 with 1:31 remaining.

Clemson aided the Orange comeback during the time since the Sykes dunk by hitting just 4-of-12 free throws, en route to a 17-of-34 (50 percent) showing for the evening.

Mays would add to the misery by hitting 1-of-2 at the 1:20 mark, and when Devendorf responded on the ensuing possession with a driving layup Syracuse trailed by just one, 67-66.

But after a timeout freshman David Potter, on the floor only because of Cliff Hammonds' fouling out moments earlier, turned in the biggest play of his career to this point. Potter came flying through the lane to rebound a missed shot by Sam Perry and score on the putback to give the Tigers a 69-66 lead with :33 seconds left.

"That was the play of the game, as far as I'm concerned," said Purnell. "It was a physical game, and I thought he got fouled on the play. That's a toughness play, and that's something we've been trying to get him to be."

Nichols would answer with a layup to cut the lead back to one with :23 to go, but K.C. Rivers hit a pair of free throws at the :20 mark to put Clemson ahead again by three, 71-68.

After Josh Wright missed a potential game-tying three-pointer on the other end, Clemson senior guard Vernon Hamilton - playing his final game at Littlejohn Coliseum - iced the victory with two free throws at the :09 mark.

"Anytime you play against a 2-3 zone you have to hit some jump shots. I thought we got just enough inside to balance it out some," said Purnell. "They finally had to go man, and I thought that's where we wanted them...But that's why they call it basketball. Syracuse did everything right, and we had to go to the free throw line and knock down some shots."

Clemson did hit plenty of jump shots against the Syracuse zone, led by the long-range bombing of Rivers.

Rivers finished with 29 points - 21 in the first half - including 5-of-10 shooting from behind the three-point arc. His quick start, along with just enough pressure defense, kept Syracuse off balance for much of the first half.

The Orange trailed 38-27 at the break, and it grow even larger before any time advanced off the second half clock because Boeheim was hit with a technical foul going off the floor at halftime. Rivers sank the two free throws before the final 20 minutes began, and Clemson had a 13-point lead.

"Coach told us before the game it was going to be a tough game, they would try to intimidate us. We stood our ground," Rivers said. "I think they waited too late to come out of that zone at the end, and I think it hurt them. But don't take anything away from them. They're a great team."

Mays was the only other Tiger to hit double figures, finishing with 13.

Devendorf led Syracuse with 23 points, while Nichols added 20.

MORE COACHES QUOTES

OLIVER PURNELL

"I'm obviously thrilled with the win tonight. Once again we're playing
better and better each day and each game. Obviously we missed some free
throws. The game certainly got physical late. We got the ball to the right
person and made enough free throws. I thought [David] Potter's tap in was
the play of the game because it gave us a working margin. I thought K.C.
[Rivers] and Cliff [Hammonds] shooting over the top of the zone opened up
the ball inside occasionally. Overall, I'm pretty pleased with the way we
attacked the zone."

On K.C. in the first half:

"K.C. [Rivers] really opened up the zone by shooting so well. He also
started taking it to the basket. I thought he was outstanding the entire game."

On the state of the program:

"We have gotten better every year. We have gotten more wins each year.
We're not done yet. Wait until it's over and I'll come up with answer. I'm
glad to see Vernon [Hamilton] is going to get a chance to play in Madison
Square Garden."

O

n beating coach Jim Boeheim:

"I'm always honored to coach against someone like Jim. I have never taken a
team to Madison Square Garden so it's time to let me have one. He's a great
coach and a great ambassador for the game."

On the home court advantage:

"I thought the crowd was fabulous. They were loud and there were a lot of
people. Our marketing department did a great job of getting people here.
There was no question it helped our team. I give our fans credit for
tonight's win."

JIM BOEHEIM, SYRACUSE

"The first 32 minutes of the game Clemson was just more aggressive than we
were. The last eight minutes of the game we got on the offensive boards,
guarded the basket, and I thought our press was good. The main thing was
that we just weren't aggressive enough at the start."

"When you are 17 down, you have to get to eight or 10. You can't let the
clock go down to two minutes and expect to come back."

"Whenever one of their big guys got it, we wanted to foul. We changed our
defense and got back in the game. Our big people played better than usual,
normally we are a perimeter team."

"I thought that we handled their press pretty well. We had some bad,
unforced turnovers in the half court, but we scored quite a few points
against their press. It was never a concern for me."

"We have been in these situations a couple times this year and got
back. These guys have battled all year, it was just disappointing that we
did not play harder, earlier."

"We are not a great rebounding team. We don't go after the ball like we
need to. (Roberts) played like a different player in the second half. He
was aggressive and went after the ball. It is tough to come back on the
road like that. Our guys showed a lot of heart."

On the last shot

"There wasn't enough time at the end. We wanted to do a dribble handoff,
but Josh was wide open for the tying three-pointer. I have no problem with
him taking that shot. Maybe if there were 30 second left we would have
tried to get it to Nichols, but with the amount of time we had left, that
was the best shot we were going to get."

On Clemson

"They are a good team. This is a great place to play, the fans were
great. We haven't been here in 32 years, and I don't know if we want to
come back for another 32. They proved all year they are a really good team."

On Syracuse

"We were tremendously disappointed last week. We are a proud program, I am
proud of what we have been able to accomplish. You have to adjust with
that disappointment, and I think that the players adjusted more than me."

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