Commentary: Planets Were Aligned for Tigers vs UNC


by - Correspondent -
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CLEMSON — In the aftermath of last Wednesday's 34-point loss at N.C. State,
Clemson University basketball coach Larry Shyatt made a statement during the
postgame press conference which, at the time, seemed more hopeful than
realistic.


An inquisitor wanted to know how the Tigers would recover following the
beating, a loss Shyatt termed the most disappointing of the season. Shyatt,
the effects of the defeat showing in his eyes for perhaps the first time this
year, nevertheless maintained his resolve.


"Perhaps after a game like this we're fortunate to have the No. 1 team in the
country next," he said. "I think it will end up being good for us."


Needless to say, there was nothing prior to Sunday's game with the top-ranked
Tar Heels that remotely suggested Clemson would, by day's end, alter the
current landscape of college basketball.


Scores of North Carolina fans dominated the parking lots, some tailgating
just off campus property. Many of them lined up outside the tunnel entrance,
or on the terrace above, hoping to get just a quick glance at their blue-clad
heroes emerging from the bus.


Inside Littlejohn Coliseum, the students who arrived early, ostensibly to
razz UNC as it warmed up, instead sat silently on the risers as Matt
Doherty's team went through shooting drills.


Even in the preceding two days of practice, the effects of losing eight
straight games seemed to be taking its toll on the team.


"We had instances of too much 'I' and not enough 'we,'" Shyatt said. "That's
symptomatic of losing."


But Sunday, at a time when the program's fortunes have never been lower — at
least this season — and it's expectations never higher, Shyatt's Tigers
delivered easily the biggest upset of the current college basketball season.


Clemson 75, No. 1 North Carolina 65.


Reports of hell freezing over have yet to be confirmed.


No small feat, this logic-defying victory. Eleven times previously Clemson
had hosted the top-ranked team in the country, and only once — against Duke
in 1980 — had the Tigers won.


Just one day longer than a month ago, Shyatt's team had been humbled at the
Dean Dome by these very same Tar Heels, 92-65. Carolina had won 18 straight
games, was 21-2, and undefeated in the Atlantic Coast Conference.


All that ended Sunday, and did so because all the little, not to mention
unusual, things necessary for such an upset fell into place. As one writer
said in the interview room following the game, "The planets were all aligned."


That explains part of what happened.


It accounts for a stretch of three straight possessions in which Tomas Nagys,
in order, hit a 3-pointer at the top of the key, drove the right side for an
off-balance bank shot from the block, and tossed a perfect alley-oop pass to
Jamar McKnight for an easy layup.


This is the same Tomas Nagys, understand, about whom sports writers on press
row wager — for entertainment purposes only — about how quickly he makes a
mistake and is pulled from the game. The sooner the better usually is the
safe bet.


It accounts for Tony Stockman's ridiculous 3-point basket with 44 seconds
left that proved to be a dagger in UNC's heart. Stockman, with Clemson up
66-62, came up with a loose ball on the Carolina end, drove into the front
court, backed up and fired from left of the key.


It hit nothing but the bottom of the net, and cut short Shyatt's premature
heart attack.


"I can't repeat what I said when he let that shot go," the coach said with a
perplexed grin.


Yes, one can find plenty of instances where luck played a part in Sunday's
win. But beyond the luck, beyond the unbelievable circumstances, lies the key.


Preparation.


Shyatt had Clemson prepared for the Tar Heels, both physically and mentally.
The triangle-and-two defense employed in the first half and for part of the
second seemed to baffle UNC.


The normally sure-shooting Joseph Forte went just 6-of-19 from the floor, and
North Carolina as a team made just one of 14 3-point attempts over the final
20 minutes. For most of the evening Clemson limited the Tar Heels to just one
shot, and finished the night with a 44-41 rebounding advantage.


Offensively, Clemson's tempo was perfect. Instead of running at all times,
the Tigers picked their spots. Clemson used clock in an attempt to shorten
the game and keep the ball out of the hands of the talent-laden Tar Heels.


Except for one stretch late, when Will Solomon fired off a series of quick
shots which let North Carolina cut a 10-point deficit to one, 61-60, Clemson
took remarkable care of the ball at the most important times.


And while Shyatt could have been excused had he taken the opportunity to say
'I told you so' in reference to his team's improvement over a year ago, he
instead expressed happiness for his players and family. Most notably his
wife, Pam, who stood in tears behind the throng of reporters as the postgame
press conference took place.


Even Shyatt found himself a bit choked up when he mentioned his wife.


"There are times when I've felt like she's my only friend," he said, voice
trailing off slightly.


But better times are on the horizon for Shyatt and his Tigers. He's been
telling anyone who would listen that the improvement in his team is obvious
and the future is bright, even as the pressure of the losing streak mounted
and whispers began to circulate about his job security.


Those whispers should be silenced now. Victories over No. 1 are the sort of
thing on which one builds a program, not starts anew. And though he refused
to say Sunday's win vindicated the faith in his players, privately Shyatt can
utter that 'I told you so' phrase.


Maybe more of us should have been listening from the beginning.


As for Pam Shyatt, the recipient of a mad dash and hug from her husband as
time expired, she seemed to know exactly what was in store for her household
late Sunday.


"I'm taking (Monday) off work," she said. "I don't think there will be much
sleeping going on after this."


Dan Scott is the managing editor of Seneca Daily Journal/Clemson Daily Messenger.
His columns can be read at www.dailyjournalmessenger.com.

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