Unbelievable! Ford, Tigers Beat VT at the Buzzer
CLEMSON - In a perfect world, players honored on Senior Night would play a key role in an important victory for the home team. But this? Come on. Hollywood wouldn't buy this finish.
Fortunately Hollywood wasn't even offered the chance. Clemson fans were.
Olu Babalola and Sharrod Ford hit the Tigers' two most important baskets of the season inside the final 10 seconds of the game Tuesday night, putting a feel-good, movie-like finish on Clemson's 66-64 victory over Virginia Tech at Littlejohn Coliseum.
The final basket - Ford's breakaway dunk with two-tenths of a second left on the game clock - spurred a wild celebration that started at midcourt and spilled over the scoring table and beyond. Clemson fans, young and old alike, stormed the floor and joined the victory party, which lasted long after a stunned set of Hokies slumped their way off the playing surface and into the locker room.
The victory means Clemson (15-13, 5-10 ACC) is now officially eligible for the postseason. That it took an ending of such drama to gain that eligibility wasn't lost on head coach Oliver Purnell.
"I've been involved in a lot of fantastic finishes over the years, but never one this important," Purnell said. "Senior Night, postseason on the line, your two seniors make the big shots, one of them a dunk to win the game at the buzzer.
"Everyone lives happily ever," he said, intentionally leaving out the word "after," choosing instead to finish the sentence with "until the next game."
The final curtain didn't fall until Clemson had made things difficult on itself down the stretch.
Leading by as many as 12 in the second half, Virginia Tech chipped away and chipped away until finally taking a 59-58 lead on a corner jump shot from Carlos Dixon with 1:31 to go. Ford immediately took back the lead for the Tigers by hitting a pair of free throws on the next possession, but Tech's Zabian Dowdell drained a 3-pointer with :53.5 remaining to put the Hokies back on top, 62-60.
Ford, fouled again on Clemson's next possession, hit one of two free throws with to pull the Tigers within 62-61, but Dixon was fouled by Babalola on a drive to the basket with :16.1 seconds to go and hit both foul shots for a 64-61 lead.
The Tigers rushed down floor hoping to set up a 3-point attempt for either Shawan Robinson or Cliff Hammonds, but after setting a screen and popping out to the top of the key, Babalola found himself with the ball and no defender in sight.
So the senior, the fourth option on the play called by Purnell and just two of his last 16 on 3-point attempts going back nine games, let fly from just right of the key and drained the shot, tying the game at 64 with :09.8 seconds remaining.
"I had had a tough night, missing some easy shots that I should have made," Babalola said. "But I wanted to be a leader out there. I'm a senior, I was wide open, and I didn't want to give the ball up to someone who might not have had as good a shot."
After Babalola's heroics, Virginia Tech rushed the ball down floor in an attempt win the game in regulation. But Jamon Gordon's pass was intercepted by Shawan Robinson, who quickly took off the other way.
"I thought he was going to shoot it," Purnell said. "But fortunately he had his head up."
Looking up floor, Robinson saw Ford running ahead of the pack and took a chance, firing the ball to the senior who caught the ball in stride near the top of the key. Later, tape of the footage showed Ford would catch the ball with eight-tenths of a second remaining and - somehow - get to the basket and dunk the ball in just over half a second.
Afterwards, Ford said pulling up and shooting a short jumper never entered his mind.
"It was dunk or nothing," he said, standing amidst fans an reporters a full 30 minutes after the game had ended. "I didn't think there was going to be enough time. I wasn't sure. The last time I saw the clock there was four seconds left. I knew I had to get it in quick.
"The only thing I saw was the rim, and I was going for it."
Ford finished the night with 18 points and 11 rebounds, despite an off-night from the field (5-of-12).
Beyond the numbers, Purnell said, was his desire to keep after it, even after missing a number of easy shots or fumbling away scoring opportunities.
"The frustration never showed in his face," Purnell said. "There have been times this year when he let it get to him, but tonight he just kept at it."
Such has been the makeup of this Clemson team of late.
Winners of three straight in the ACC for the first time since 2002-03, the Tigers head into the regular season finale Saturday at Georgia Tech not only with a chance to further improve their NIT standing, but to reach for even loftier goals.
"Five or six conference tournaments this year will be won by a seven or eight seed," Purnell said. "We're playing well, and if we can go into Georgia Tech and somehow come out with a win that will be four in a row heading into the ACC Tournament. Having the NIT is nice to fall back on, but to be honest I'm still thinking about the NCAAs.
"You win your first two games in the tournament, get an upset here or there and you never know who you're playing in the semifinals. That's what we're looking at right now. Staying on a roll as long as we can."
Dixon led Virginia Tech (14-12, 7-8) with 25 points.
Dan Scott covers Clemson University for the The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Seneca Daily Journal/Clemson Messenger and TigerNet. 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.