Tigers, Purnell look to get past NCAA's first round

by - Senior Writer -

CLEMSON – When Clemson head coach Oliver Purnell was hired before the 2003-04 season, Clemson fans hoped that Purnell would be the coach that could bring the Tigers some semblance of tournament success, and Purnell certainly hoped to be able to finally lead a team past the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Purnell is now in his seventh season at Clemson, and the Tigers have still not won an NCAA Tournament game in his tenure, and have not won a game in a stretch that dates back to the 1997 season. That team was coached by Rick Barnes and featured players such as Merl Code, Greg Buckner and Tom Wideman, and advanced to the Sweet 16 before a thrilling, double-overtime loss to Minnesota.

Purnell is 0-for-5 in NCAA Tournament appearances, losing in the in first round with Old Dominion (91-92), Dayton (1999-2000 and 2002-03), and Clemson (2007-08 and 2008-09), but Purnell said on Tuesday that Friday’s first round game against Missouri in Buffalo will be more about taking the next step than getting “over the hump” for both him personally and the Clemson program.

“We are excited about playing in the first round of the NCAA Tournament; it’s an exciting time of year and this is definitely the tournament you want to play in,” Purnell said. “Obviously, it would be a big deal for us getting past that first round, because the last couple of years we have not done that. But a win is just another step, and while we would be very pleased with that step, it just gives you an opportunity to make another step. “

In 2008, the 5th-seeded Tigers took on 12th-seeded Villanova, and jumped out to a 36-18 lead in the first half and led by 12, at 39-27, at the half. Villanova then outscored the Tigers 48-30 in the second half and went on to the 75-69 win.

In 2009, the 7th-seeded Tigers made just 5-of-22 shots from 3-point range and lost to 10th-seeded Michigan 62-59 despite out-rebounding the Wolverines 44-33. Clemson sharpshooter Terrence Oglesby was just 1-for-8 from beyond the arc, and was thrown out early in the second half for committing an intentional foul.

Clemson guard Andre Young said this year’s team is aware of the history, but won’t focus on the past as they prepare for Missouri.

“Year after year, it seems like Clemson gets put out early in these tournaments,” Young said. “That is definitely a lot of pressure on your shoulders, and you want to come out and prevent that from happening again. You don’t want to disappoint the fans again.

“But it’s just a matter of coming out and playing hard. This is not the same team as the previous four or five years. It is important that these veterans come out and lead this team and make a run in this tournament. We just need to come out, focus, play well and listen to the coaching staff.”

Purnell said the streak will end of the Tigers can make plays down the stretch, something that didn’t happen the past two seasons.

“We just have to make some plays down the stretch, hit some free throws down the stretch,” Purnell said. “I think our guys are prepared to do that because they have done that all season.”

Purnell was asked if the last two tournament appearances will have any bearing on Friday’s performance, and he said it actually could work both for and against the Tigers.

“I don’t know if that is an overriding factor,” Purnell said. “You can say ‘well you lost the last two and is it going to happen again.’ Or you can say ‘We lost the last two, and we are going to win this one. Let’s get it and find out.’ You just can’t put too much emphasis on one game.”

Purnell was then asked if a win would be a monkey off of his back, personally, and he laughed, and said “I don’t think so, but let’s get it [a win] and find out.”

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