GREENSBORO, N.C. - The inability to deliver a knockout punch proved fatal for Clemson Thursday night. For Virginia, it promises at least one more day of joy in 'Hoo-ville.
The No. 8 seeded Cavaliers rallied from a late eight-point deficit in regulation, then held on in overtime for an 83-79 victory over No. 9 seed Clemson in the ACC Tournament play-in game at Greensboro Coliseum. The victory advances the Cavs (17-11) into today's quarterfinal round, where they face No. 1 seed Duke at noon.
The Tigers finish the season 10-18, and enter the offseason wondering what might have been.
"I thought we played well for most of the game, all the way except for the final five or six minutes," Clemson head coach Oliver Purnell said. "I thought we were definitely unsettled, maybe a little bit tired, and the combination led to turnovers. We were mentally and physically tired at that point."
The game, Purnell said, was a "microcosm" of the Clemson season.
The Tigers were solid for much of the evening, but in key moments seemed to fall apart.
If it wasn't Vernon Hamilton committing a turnover, it was Olu Babalola or Shawan Robinson launching airballs on 3-point attempts on crucial possessions. And even on the rare evening in which the Tigers shot well from the free throw line (26-of-35, 74.3 percent), the misses seemed to come at just the wrong time.
And, of course, Virginia was able to hit a number of clutch shots down the stretch.
"What we stress at the end of the game, in the last six minutes, is that our defensive fundamentals must be there," Purnell said. "We want to defend without fouling; you want to give them one tough shot, and we weren't very good in that area."
Virginia grabbed the lead for good, 72-71, when J.R. Reynolds hit a 3-pointer with 1:45 left in the extra period.
Hamilton committed a turnover on the next possession, and the Cavs wasted little time in taking advantage of the mistake. T.J. Bannister, who came up with the loose ball, got it ahead to Todd Billett. Billett found a wide-open Devin Smith, who drained another 3-ball from just left of the key with 1:04 remaining for a 75-71 lead.
The Cavs still led, 76-73, when Clemson gained possession with :34 to go. But Babalola's ill-advised 3-point attempt from near the top of the key drew nothing but air.
Billett then sandwiched four free throws around a Hamilton layup for an 80-75 lead with :14 left, only to see Hamilton answer at the :09 mark with a 3-pointer to cut the lead to 80-78.
Smith then hit 1-of-2 from the free throw line with :06.8 to play, pushing the lead back to three points. But Virginia wisely fouled Hamilton near halfcourt with :03 remaining, not allowing the Tigers to get off a potential game-tying 3-point attempt.
Hamilton hit the first free throw and intentionally missed the second, but Reynolds rebounded the miss, was fouled and hit both free throws to put it away.
"We were fortunate to win the game," said Virginia coach Pete Gillen. "Our kids came back from the dead. Some of our freshmen stepped up. At the beginning they were a little tentative and a little in awe of the atmosphere.
"(Late in the game) we talked about determination, courage and togetherness. I thought our guys showed that down the stretch."
Clemson appeared to be in control after Chey Christie's driving layup from the corner put the Tigers ahead 62-54 with 3:05 left in the game.
But Virginia wouldn't quit. After exchanging free throws on three straight possessions, the Cavs got back-to-back 3-pointers from Billett and Reynolds to pull within 66-62 with an even 2:00 left.
After a Robinson airball on a 3-point attempt with the shot clock winding down, T.J. Bannister was fouled on a drive to the basket and hit 1-of-2 free throws to make it 66-63 with 1:25 to go. Olu Babalola missed a golden opportunity to add to the Clemson lead when he couldn't connect on a layup working against the Cavs press, but Virginia wasted a chance to tie the game with a 3-pointer by throwing the ball away on the ensuing possession.
Hamilton then hit two free throws with 1:01 to go, but those were matched by Billet seconds later to cut the lead to 68-65.
Virginia's press then paid huge dividends, forcing a turnover which landed in the hands of Bannister. Bannister immediately drove to the basket where he scored and was fouled with 49.6 remaining. He hit the free throw to tie the game at 68-68.
Clemson responded by committing yet another turnover with 30 seconds left, this time in the halfcourt set, when Hamilton tried to force the ball inside to Sharrod Ford.
Billett came away with the loose ball and the Cavs set up for a final shot attempt to win the game in regulation. But the Tiger defense prevented Virginia from getting off a clean shot inside the final seconds, sending the game to overtime.
"I thought in the last six minutes if we defended pretty well and rebounded and made the most of our free throws, we had a chance to win," Purnell said.
"We didn't do that."
Billett finished with a game-high 20 points for Virginia, followed by Elton Brown with 19, Reynolds with 18 and Smith with 14.
Hamilton's 19 topped Clemson. He was joined in double figures by Robinson (14), Ford (12) and Lamar Rice (11).
VIRGINIA 83, CLEMSON 79, OT
CLEMSON (10-18): Hamilton 6-10 4-6 19, Ford 2-5 8-12 12, Babalola 2-11 5-8 9, Robinson 4-8 4-4 14, Akingbala 3-5 0-0 6, Rice 4-9 3-3 11, Christie 2-6 0-0 4, Hudson 0-1 0-0 0, Hobbs 1-4 2-2 4. Totals 24-59 26-35 79.
VIRGINIA (17-11): Reynolds 5-9 5-5 18, Bannister 0-4 3-4 3, Billet 4-12 10-12 20, Clark 1-2 0-0 2, Brown 7-11 5-8 19, Byars 2-4 0-0 5, Mapp 0-0 0-0 0, Forbes 0-1 0-0 0, Smith 4-12 4-6 14, Minter 1-1 0-0 2. Totals 24-56 27-35 83.
Halftime — Clemson 35-29. End of regulation — Tied at 68. 3-Point goals — Clemson 5-18 (Hamilton 3-4, Robinson 2-4, Rice 0-3, Christie 0-3, Babalola 0-4), Virginia 8-19 (Reynolds 3-5, Smith 2-5, Billet 2-7, Byars 1-1, Bannister 0-1). Fouled out — Robinson, Hobbs, Clark. Rebounds — Clemson 42 (Ford, Babalola 9), Virginia 32 (Billet 7). Assists — Clemson 11 (Akingbala, Christie 3), Virginia 16 (Bannister 6). Total fouls — Clemson 29, Virginia 27. A — 17,211.