Pain of NCAA loss motivates Tigers for next season

by - Senior Writer -

TAMPA, FL – Clemson senior Jerai Grant sat in front of his locker with a towel draped over his head, trying to shut the world and the pain out.

Grant and the Tigers had just dropped an 84-76 decision to the West Virginia Mountaineers in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday, and for four Clemson seniors it meant never putting on a Clemson uniform again.

Milton Jennings sat on a table just inside the door, eating a postgame meal, and looked at Grant and said that sight alone makes him want to make him work harder.

“That is motivation right there,” the sophomore swingman said. “I look at our seniors, and I see their pain and that makes me just want to work harder. The younger players see the seniors and it’s not a good look on their face. I know it hurts them to lose because they can’t play college basketball anymore. Next year we will remember this and it will make us come out and work harder.”

The reactions of the rest of the Tiger seniors varied – from Jonah Baize holding back tears as he sat alone, to Demontez Stitt sitting in a corner answering questions softly, to Zay Anderson sitting with his head down, listening to music and keeping time with his own thoughts.

Jennings, however, put a silver lining on the somber and quiet locker room by saying that the future might be bright for his Tigers, especially with a head coach like Brad Brownell, who took a team that was picked to finish anywhere from seventh to last in the ACC and led them to a fourth-place finish in the league.

“It will be like starting new again,” Jennings said. “We will have five new freshmen coming in, but I’ve seen them and they look pretty athletic. When they learn our system, how to help on defense and what we expect they will fit in quite well. We have a good group of sophomore and juniors here, and we look at our seniors and see how they led us. We will rely on those things and have a pretty good team next year.”

The Tigers lose their two leading scorers in Stitt and Grant, leaving Jennings, Tanner Smith, Devin Booker and Andre Young as the main scoring options.

But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out who Brownell will be looking at as his leaders next season; he sent Smith and Young – next year’s seniors – out to face the assembled media following the game instead of Grant and Stitt.

“Those are big shoes to fill,” Smith said of the seniors. “All four of those guys have had an effect on us. Their leadership might not have been in the spotlight, but they were very capable leaders. They’ve always been leaders since I’ve been here. Andre and I will do our best to be just like them.”

Brownell said he was proud of a team that defied the experts and put together a 20-win season, a NCAA Tournament berth and a first-round win.

“It was a great year for us,” he said. “We were picked anywhere from 7th to 12th in the ACC, and more people had us nine, 10 and 11 than anywhere else, I would say. I am proud of our seniors. I think they really led us. I think they served as great ambassadors for our team, and we improved a great deal from start to finish. And as a result we were playing really good basketball here down the stretch, and for those guys to be a group of seniors that have gone to four straight NCAA Tournaments, there's not many schools in the country that can say that.”

However, he understands that next year will be different with five new players in place of Anderson, Baize, Stitt and Grant.

“You know, our challenge will be next year. We lose some good players, and we'll be very young,” he said. “We'll have great turnover. We'll have five freshmen at least next year. We'll have a couple of seniors that have played a lot. But next year will be a very difficult transition year for us from the standpoint of we're not starting over, but we've got to take a half a step back losing the two guys that we lost.

“I do think our staff did a very good job. My assistants were terrific all year. To earn the trust of our team with a totally different system isn't easy to do, and we became very close with our guys. They trusted in us, and I think we played very good basketball late as a result.”

For Jennings, however, he got all the motivation he needs for next season on Thursday.

“I know they busted their butts,” Jennings said of the seniors. “We busted our butts for them and it didn’t work out, but we can point to games and lapses that put us in the situation we were in. And we don’t want to have to go through this again.”

And Young became a leader almost instantaneously as he wandered from teammate to teammate and gave words of encouragement.

“We just have to move forward and focus on the off-season now,” Young said. “We have to become better players. We can be in this position next year, but with different results.”

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