CLEMSON - The legend of Feb. 18 not only lives, it's growing.
For the third consecutive season Clemson scored an unlikely victory on that date. Two years ago it was knocking off undefeated and No. 1 North Carolina in Littlejohn Coliseum. Last season it was an unlikely road victory at Virginia.
Back at Littlejohn Wednesday night, the pattern held true to form. The Tigers turned in one of their best defensive performances of the season in defeating No. 13 N.C. State, 60-55, before an announced crowd of 7,700.
Rumors that Clemson (10-13, 3-9 ACC) is trying to schedule a doubleheader for Feb. 18, 2005 could not be confirmed in the aftermath of Wednesday's victory.
All kidding aside, Oliver Purnell's team was marvelous on the defensive end of the floor.
The Wolfpack (16-6, 9-3) shot just 30.2 percent (19-of-63) for the game, including an anemic 6-of-37 (16.2 percent) from behind the 3-point arc. A number of the missed 3s were of the desperation mode down the stretch, to be sure, but Clemson's defensive effort was strong from the opening tip.
The Wolfpack scored just 19 points in the first half, hitting on just 7-of-31 shot attempts (22.6 percent). Most impressively, State's Princeton-style offense produced exactly zero back-door layups Wednesday, a marked difference from the first meeting between the teams earlier this season in Raleigh.
"I thought we guarded them really well," Purnell said. "We were able to take away their 3-point shots; we were able to contest every shot. I would have liked to have rebounded better, but when a team shoots 37 3s the rebounds are going to go all over the place."
A key - and somewhat surprising - contributor to Clemson's effort was sophomore Akin Akingbala.
Starting in place of senior Chris Hobbs, Akingbala turned in his best performance of the season. In 22 minutes was able to stifle Wolfpack forward Ilian Evtimov, while at the same time providing much needed rebounding help (six total, four offensive).
More importantly, Akingbala was unexpectedly productive on the offensive end of the floor. He finished with 10 points, including scoring Clemson's first three baskets of the second half, a flurry that opened up the Tigers' first double-digit lead, 31-21.
Akingbala started because Hobbs was being disciplined for the technical foul he received against Florida State last time out, a mistake which cost the Tigers serious momentum in a game they had a chance to win.
"Coach Purnell sat me down, and I understand why," Hobbs said. "All I could do was try to make a positive out of it.
Then, referencing Akingbala's performance, Hobbs added:
"He was outstanding tonight. People don't really know how good he can be."
Hobbs himself was a solid contributor off the bench, scoring eight points and grabbing three rebounds in 25 minutes.
But the offensive star again was Shawan Robinson. The sophomore guard scored a game-high 20 points on 6-of-9 shooting from the field (3-of-5 from 3-point land). He also hit 3-of-4 free throws in the final 37 seconds, helping the Tigers hold off a late Wolfpack charge.
After missing five straight free throws just shy of the 2:00 mark, the Tigers recovered to hit 10-of-14 in the final 1:35.
State hit a pair of 3s inside the final 19 seconds that drew them within 59-55, but the onslaught proved too little, too late.
"We had a hard time putting the ball in the basket," said Wolfpack coach Herb Sendek. "We needed to hit some outside shots to spread them out a little, and we couldn't."
N.C. State had won five straight ACC games before Wednesday night, a fact Purnell pointed out to his team before the game.
"They came in here on a roll, and we're struggling to right ourselves," he said. "We had a long talk before the game...why can't we go on a five-game roll?"
- Julius Hodge led State with 15 points, followed by Evtimov with 13 and Melvin with 12. But the trio shot a combined 13-of-36 from the field.
- Clemson's bench outscored State 10-0. The Tigers also committed in a season-low 11 turnovers.
- Freshman point guard Vernon Hamilton became ill 15 minutes before game time, but still was able to give Purnell 15 minutes off the bench Wednesday, including crucial time handling the ball down the stretch.
N.C. STATE (16-6): Hodge 6-13 2-4 15, Melvin 4-16 2-2 12, Evtimov 3-7 6-6 13, Atsur 2-8 1-2 6, Sherrill 4-9 0-0 9, O'Donnell 0-3 0-0 0, Bennerman 0-2 0-0 0, Watkins 0-5 0-0 0, Collins 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 19-63 11-14 55.
CLEMSON (10-13): Babalola 1-9 3-5 5, Akingbala 5-7 0-0 10, Ford 4-6 1-2 9, Christie 2-5 1-2 6, Robinson 6-9 5-8 20, Rice 0-4 0-0 0, Hamilton 0-1 2-4 2, Hobbs 3-6 2-3 8. Totals 21-47 14-24 60.
Halftime — Clemson 25-19. 3-Point goals — N.C. State 6-37 (Melvin 2-10, Evtimov 1-3, Hodge 1-5, Sherrill 1-5, Atsur 1-6, Bennerman 0-1, O'Donnell 0-2, Watkins 0-5), Clemson 4-14 (Robinson 3-5, Christie 1-3, Rice 0-2, Babalola 0-4). Fouled out — Atsur. Rebounds — N.C. State 42 (Melvin 7), Clemson 36 (Babalola 9). Assists — N.C. State 7 (Hodge 3), Clemson 13 (Babalola, Christie 4). Total fouls — N.C. State 24, Clemson 16. A — 7,700.
Dan Scott covers Clemson University for the Seneca Daily Journal/Clemson Messenger. He also hosts SportsTalk from 9 a.m.-Noon, Monday-Friday, on WCCP-Fm, 104.9. Click here for Dan Scott's SportsTalk discussion board.