CLEMSON --- Clemson had no problems letting East Tennessee State’s Tim Smith score his points as long as no one else really did.
Smith scored a game-high 33 points, but the Tigers held the rest of the Buccaneers in check in an 80-72 victory Friday at Littlejohn Coliseum.
“That Timmy Smith, he is a tough little player,” said Clemson head coach Oliver Purnell. “It seems like he would go in there with that little runner and was shooting it from his hip.”
Smith had willed the Bucs (1-5) back into the game with 11:21 to go when he scored eight straight points to make the score 54-48. He finished the night with a season-high in points, attempts (26), steals (6), assists (6), rebounds (8) and field goals (13). But he also had a season-high eight turnovers as well.
“Tim is a real quick guard and we noticed he liked to go to his left a lot so he could get his shot off so I tried to get him to go to his right,” said Clemson guard Vernon Hamilton. “That way when he came back to the left I was in position and that allowed me to get a few steals and maybe make his shot a little more difficult.”
Hamilton finished with three steals.
“Vernon Hamilton, he is a super point guard,” said ETSU coach Murry Bartow.
Hamilton also did it on the offensive side as he finished the night with 15 points and eight assists.
But the offensive star of the night for Clemson belonged to sophomore Cliff Hammonds, who ended his season-long slump with a 5 for 10 effort from behind the arc and a season-high 21 points to lead the Tigers.
After finishing the first half with five points, Hammonds hit his first 3-pointer of the second half and then a few minutes later hit another as Clemson built 42-28 lead just a minute and 24 seconds into the half.
“When it went in, I felt a little more relaxed and I think the next few shots came to me,” he said.
It seemed as if the shots came to Hammonds every time the Tigers (8-0) needed a big basket. After watching Smith personally get his team back in the game, Hammonds answered with back-to-back threes which upped Clemson’s lead to 62-48 with 9:51 to go.
“He played more relaxed tonight,” Purnell said about Hammond’s effort. “He did a great job tonight shooting the ball and he continues to work hard to get better.”
Hammonds, 8 of 14 from the field, hit his fourth 3-pointer of the half with 8:39 to play from the left wing that for the most part put the game out reach at 65-48.
“I was wide open and they all just felt good when they left my hand,” Hammonds said.
Smith and the Bucs weren’t finished, however, as they rallied for a third time to get the score under double digits. This time it wasn’t Smith, but freshman Courtney Pilgrim, who scored 20 points, including a stretch of three minutes where he scored six points to get ETSU with seven at 72-65.
“We got enough out of Tim and Courtney, but we just didn’t get anything on the inside,” Bartow said. “Clemson is the best rebounding team we will see all year. They dominated us on the offensive glass.
“Clemson isn’t a good shooting team, but they make up for it with the way they hit the glass.”
The Tigers out rebounded ETSU by four 43-39 and had 15 offensive boards. The most impressive number of the night was the way the Clemson defense held the Bucs second leading scorer, forward Dillion Seed – 16.6 points per game coming in – to just four points and one rebound.
“I thought we did a good job controlling the game,” Purnell said. “We were sharper and had more energy. Our defense really got after it tonight.”
Hamilton sparked an 11-2 run in the first half when he stripped Smith, dove for the loose ball and while on the ground jetted a pass to Akin Akingbala who dunked the ball, making the score 22-17 at the time.
The Tigers led by as many as 12 points in the opening half as Hamilton had five assists to go along with his six points. ETSU had 13 turnovers in the first 20 minutes off-setting the Tigers woeful shooting. Clemson shot just 40 percent in the first half, while the Bucs shot 37.9 percent.
Smith started off the night scoring 10 of his teams first 12 points as ETSU held two early leads before the Tigers went on the 11-2 run. Clemson led 36-28 at the break.
Clemson is now 8-0 for the first time in four years and for just the 11th time in school history. The Tigers will take the next week off for exams before heading to Puerto Rico for the San Jaun Shootout on Dec. 19.
“This was huge. This is what we wanted, to start 8-0 before we went to Puerto Rico,” Hamilton said. “We are going to enjoy this and hope to keep it going once we get there.”
Clemson will not return home until Dec. 30 when they host Elon.