Tigers Hold On Down Stretch, Advance To NIT Championship Game


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NEW YORK - Being in what many consider the most hallowed arena in all of basketball didn't seem to have an effect on Clemson. The Tigers did what they always do:

Kept it interesting from start to finish.

Clemson held off a late Air Force rally Tuesday night to win in the semifinals of the Mastercard NIT, 68-67. The victory improves Oliver Purnell's team to 25-10 on the season, and advances them to the NIT finals vs. West Virginia Thursday night at New York's Madison Square Garden.

"We're just trying to drive ESPN's ratings up," Purnell quipped after it was all said and done.

The Tigers led by as many as 13 in the second half, and held a 12-point lead - 49-37- as late as 10:45 left in the game. That's when Air Force hit a pair of free throws to draw within 10, and start a march that would see the Falcons storm back to tie the game at 51-51 when Nick Welch drained a 3-pointer at the 7:00 mark.

But Clemson, as it did all night long, responded to the challenge.

A short jumper by Trevor Booker and a 3-pointer by K.C. Rivers pushed the lead back to 56-51 on Clemson's next two possessions. After a Welch layup cut the margin back to three, Vernon Hamilton responded with an acrobatic layup in transition and - after a defensive stop - Rivers would add another 3-pointer for a 61-53 Tigers' lead at 3:46.

Despite another poor night from the free throw line, Clemson hit enough over the next three minutes - including two straight by Rivers - to keep the Falcons at arm's length. And when Welch hit a layup with just four seconds left his team still trailed by four, 68-62 and the game appeared over.

But nothing is easy where the Tigers are concerned.

Clemson threw away the inbound pass, which found its way into the hands of Dan Nwaelele. His 3-pointer from the left wing made it 68-67 with :01.2, forcing Purnell to call a timeout.

Following the break, it looked for a moment as if the Tigers were going to have a hard time getting the ball inbounds. But finally David Potter broke free, took the inbound pass and dribbled up floor as time expired.

"I thought our guys were very well prepared for what can be a frustrating style," Purnell said. "We played well in the first half except for the final five minutes when we relaxed, and you can't relax against a tough-minded team like Air Force. So it was important to come out strong in the first four minutes of the second half.

"Then it was time for our guys to show how tough-minded we are. Everything we've been through this year played into it. We hit big shot after big shot, and after missing a few free throws we finally made a couple."

Rivers led Clemson with 19 points, followed by Booker with 13 and Hamilton and Cliff Hammonds with 11 each.

Welch's 16 topped Air Force, while Matt McCraw added 15.

Clemson and West Virginia will meet for the NIT Championship at 7 p.m. Thursday.

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