CLEMSON – Not since last season’s collapse against Florida State have the Clemson Tigers endured a second half like the one played against Illinois on Wednesday night.
Illinois outscored the Tigers 49-27 in that half, erasing a 20-point halftime deficit, shooting 60.7% from the field (17-for-28) in the second stanza in downing the 19th-ranked Tigers 76-74 at Littlejohn Coliseum, leaving the Tigers (6-2) searching for answers on both the offensive and defensive ends of the floor.
“Kind of real simple from my vantage point,” Clemson head coach Oliver Purnell said. “I haven’t watched the tape, but it looked like a tale of two halves to me. We said in the locker room [at halftime] that we would get their best shot. And then we went up 23 [points], and at that point we relaxed.”
The Illini came out firing in the first half, and jumped out to an 8-2 lead just a minute and a half into the game. The Tigers, led by Booker, eventually came back to tie the score at 10, then took their first lead on a three-pointer by Noel Johnson at the 16:45 mark.
The Tigers led 27-23 when they began a run that saw them outscore the Illini 20-4 over the final seven minutes of the half. Guard Andre Young hit a layup over Illinois center Mike Tisdale that gave Clemson its first double digit lead at 35-25, and then Illinois head coach Bruce Weber was called for a technical foul. Johnson hit both free throws to put Clemson up 37-25, and they eventually led 47-27 at the half.
Perhaps the biggest key in the first half was that the Tigers committed just two turnovers to 10 for the Illini. Illinois was 4-for-7 from the line in the half, while Clemson shot 14-for-16 from the charity stripe.
“We played much better in the first half,” Purnell said. “We could have shot the ball better, because we had some open looks, and were doing exactly what we wanted to do. We kept them under duress the whole time. Offensively, we were playing inside-out and playing balanced.”
The Illini came out in the second half and switched from their 2-3 matchup zone to a more physical man-to-man, and after Clemson opened up a 60-41 lead, the Illini went on 22-1 run over the next five minutes to take a 63-61 lead with 8:46 remaining.
Eventually, Illinois went up 70-68 with just over four minutes left in the half, but Stitt came down and threw down an ice water three pointer from the top of the key to trim the Illini lead to one at 70-69. The Clemson defense held Illinois to an off-balance three-pointer, the rebound was cleared out and Tanner Smith’s missed layup was put back in by Bryan Narcisse for a 71-70 Clemson lead with 3:09 remaining.
Tisdale then hit a turnaround jumper in the lane for a 72-71 Illinois lead, and Clemson’s next possession ended in a turnover. However, Tisdale committed an offensive foul, and Smith drained a three-pointer from the corner with 1:59 left on the clock for a 74-72 Tiger lead.
The Illini then got a free throw to trim Clemson’s lead to 74-73, and a Tisdale drive with just over 30 seconds remaining put Illinois back in front at 75-74. Clemson missed on its ensuing possession, and Clemson was forced to foul Illini point guard Brandon Paul with 8.4 seconds remaining.
Paul hit one of two free throws, and Booker cleared the rebound and passed to Stitt, who drove the lane and got off a clean shot, but the ball bounced off the left side of the rim and the Illini were able to escape with the 76-74 win.
“Illinois just kept coming,” Purnell said. “We had a chance to win there at the end. We were up one with under a minute to play, and Tisdale drove the left baseline and we didn’t take the charge and they scored. Then we had a chance to come down, and Potter drove down the line, and we had a couple of guys wide open but we got the shot blocked. At the end, Demontez got to the rim and couldn’t convert and that was the ballgame.”
Stitt led all Clemson players in scoring with 15 points, while Booker added 12 as the only other Tiger in double figures. Mike Davis led Illinois with 22 points, while Paul added 20.
Purnell said the fact that Illinois kept switching from the matchup zone to man-to-man on defense seemed to give the Tigers trouble.
“They kept switching defenses on us a little bit, going back and forth between the zone and man-to-man,” Purnell said. “I thought it made us a little uncomfortable, because it makes it harder to get the ball inside with the zone.”
The Tigers return to the court on Sunday when they host South Carolina in a 1 p.m. contest.