Clemson Outlast Buccaneers to Advance in NIT

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CLEMSON --- With a large group of the media surrounding Clemson guard K.C. Rivers after the Tigers? 64-57 victory over East Tennessee State in the first round of the NIT Wednesday, his head coach reached over the head of a few media members and gave the sophomore a high-five.

It was a fitting way for Oliver Purnell to let his guard know what a great job he did. Rivers, who led the Tigers with 17 points and 14 rebounds, and the rest of the Clemson team had to fight through and sometimes over a tenacious East Tennessee State squad to earn a trip into the second round.

?We had to come up and make some plays late because they were giving us all they had,? Rivers said. ?We knew they were going to give us a tough time, but they gave us everything they had.?

Clemson (22-10) outscored the Buccaneers 16-8 after falling behind 49-48 on an Eryk Thomas layup with 6:19 to play. It was the first lead for ETSU since it had a brief 21-19 lead with 4:57 to go in the first half.

But like that first lead, the second half one was just as brief as Clemson?s Cliff Hammonds drained a three-pointer from the right wing on the Tigers? next possession, giving them a 51-49 lead. They never trailed again.

?When they took that lead, we just gutted it up,? Hammonds said. ?They started to struggle a little bit after that and we were able to capitalize.?

Clemson capitalized by finally getting some production from second-leading scorers James Mays. The junior forwards strong take to the basket gave

Clemson some breathing room at 59-53. Before that basket Mays had scored just seven points and had three field goals in over 75 minutes of play.

?The shots just haven?t been falling for me,? he said. ?I not really doing anything different, they just haven?t gone in.?

But they are going in for Trevor Booker. The freshman scored eight of his 11 points in the second half, while recording his third double-double of the season as he also grabbed 11 boards.

?When a post player isn?t getting it done, it?s good to have someone else in the post stepping up,? Mays said.

At one point in the second half, Booker scored eight points in a span of three-minutes and 15 seconds, allowing Clemson to build its six-point lead.

?We didn?t have anyone who could matchup with Booker,? ETSU coach Murry Bartow said. ?He is what every coach wants. We are lacking that kind of inside man. If we had a guy like Booker next year, we would probably go undefeated in our conference.?

It looked for awhile as if Clemson wasn?t going to be moving on in the NIT. The Buccaneers (24-10) forced 13 first half turnovers, while holding Clemson to 33.3 percent shooting. The Tigers finished the night with 19 turnovers --- the second most of the season --- and though they shot 43.3 percent in the second half, they finished the night just 37.9 percent from the field.

At one point in the first half Clemson was 1 for 15 from the floor spurring Purnell to empty his bench. Clemson?s Karolis Petrukonis even made a brief appearance, playing for two minutes --- his first action since January 7.

?There was a point I was a little concerned there for a while,? Purnell said.
The Tigers rebounded, however, and did they ever rebound. The Tigers? had a season-high 51 boards, 19 more than ETSU. Clemson out rebounded the Bucs 19-6 on the offensive glass.

?We don?t win without it,? Purnell said. ?We weren?t worried about our offense because we knew it would get better. It?s all about making stops.?
The only guy Clemson could not stop was guard Courtney Pilgrim, who scored 25 points, but he did it on 12 of 26 shooting.

?We knew he would take somewhere between 19 to 25 shots. Our goal was to make sure he didn?t get in his comfort spot where he likes to take the ball to the hole. Cliff did a good job defending, especially late in the game.?
Pilgrim, who finished with six rebounds, four assists and five steals in addition to his game-high 25 points, kept the Buccaneers in the game by scoring 11 straight points during one stretch of the second half. That set up Thomas? layup which gave ETSU its brief 49-48 lead with 6:19 to go.
From there, it was all Clemson as it took over the game to advance to Monday?s second round.

?In the last six minutes every single guy on the floor made a play,? Purnell said. ?That was the difference? (ETSU) had a great game plan and believed they could win and gave us all we could handle.?

Who?s next. Clemson will host Mississippi (21-12) on Monday with a time to be announced today. Ole Miss beat Appalachian State, 73-59, Wednesday to advance.

High scorer. Besides Rivers? 17 points and Bookers? 11, Clemson also got 13 points from Vernon Hamilton and 10 from Cliff Hammonds. Not other player besides Pilgrim scored in double digits for the Buccaneers.

Tough ?D?. Clemson?s held the Bucs to 6 offensive rebounds and to 40.6 percent shooting from the field. The Tigers also forced 14 turnovers.

Important point. Clemson broke a streak of nine straight defeats when scoring less than 70 points. The Tigers are now 2 for their last 11 when scoring under 70 points and 5-9 on the season. Clemson is 17-1 win scoring more than 70 points.

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