CLEMSON - Oliver Purnell has said it more than once, and he'll likely being saying it until season's end. For this Clemson basketball team to have a chance to win in the ACC, it must play defense and rebound.
When they don't, even for short spurts, the results can be ugly.
Such was the case Thursday night at Littlejohn Coliseum, where No. 20 Wake Forest snapped out of a recent funk with an 82-67 victory over the Tigers. The Demon Deacons (14-6, 5-5 ACC) had dropped six of their previous eight games since starting the season 11-0.
"I've not been happy with our last three halves of basketball," Purnell said. "We played pretty well in the first half against Duke, but since then it's been a struggle. Tonight I thought we defended pretty well in the first half, but then in the second half we gave up too many easy shots."
After shooting just 34.5 percent (10-of-29) in the first half, Wake Forest blistered the nets at a 66.7 clip (14-of-21) in the second.
Moreover, the Deacs hit the big shots when they counted most. Twice the Tigers (9-12, 2-8) made significant runs at Wake in the second half, and both times Skip Prosser's team was equal to the task.
The first opportunity came when Clemson cut a 12-point lead in half on a pair of 3-point plays nearly eight minutes into the second half. Down 47-35, Olu Babalola's driving layup plus the bonus, and a 3-ball from Lamar Rice in the right corner cut the lead to 47-41 with 12:23 left in the half.
But after a timeout, Jamaal Levy tipped in a Chris Paul miss to push the lead back to eight, 49-41.
Clemson answered back with five straight points - a 3-pointer from Vernon Hamilton and a Rice putback - to pull within 49-46. Paul and Olu Babalola then exchanged a pair of free throws to make it 51-48.
But Justin Gray (29 points) nailed 3-balls on Wake's next two possessions, sandwiched around a Chey Christie putback for Clemson, to give the Deacons a 57-50 lead. That sparked an 21-6 run which saw Wake Forest build its biggest lead of the night, 72-54, with 4:05 to go.
"This was important. We've been struggling, so to come in and get a win on the road was good for us," Prosser said. "Justin Gray hit a couple of cold-blooded shots for us there at big times and we were able to execute well enough to win."
That either team was able to execute was nothing short of amazing, given that they combined for 57 fouls and 69 free throws.
And despite Clemson's defensive struggles in the second half, it was the free throw shooting which proved to be the main culprit. The Tigers shot just 50 percent (17-of-34) on the night, while Wake Forest hit 28-of-35 (80 percent).
Asked if the high number of fouls kept his team from being aggressive defensively, Purnell emphatically shook his head.
"I don't buy that," he said. "There have been other games where maybe we weren't happy with the number of fouls called and we continued to play defense. I don't buy that at all."
Babalola led Clemson with 22 points, with Christie adding 10.
Paul added 16 to the Deacons effort, with Levy scoring 12.
Clemson returns to action Saturday night at Florida State.
WAKE FOREST (14-6): Levy 5-7 2-2 12, Danelius 1-2 0-0 2, Visser 2-3 1-2 5, Gray 7-13 11-12 29, Paul 3-9 9-10 16, Ellis 3-4 2-2 8, Downey 2-6 0-0 5, Williams 1-6 3-6 5, Hendley 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 24-50 28-35 82.
CLEMSON (9-12): Babalola 5-7 10-12 22, Hobbs 3-3 1-4 7, Ford 1-3 3-6 5, Christie 4-8 1-2 10, Robinson 1-6 0-0 2, Rice 3-3 1-2 9, Hamilton 3-7 1-8 8, Hudson 0-1 0-0 0, Akingbala 2-3 0-0 4. Totals 22-41 17-34 67.
Halftime — Wake Forest 32-25. 3-Point goals — Wake Forest 6-16 (Gray 4-9, Paul 1-3, Downey 1-3, Levy 0-1), Clemson 6-11 (Rice 2-2, Babalola 2-3, Hamilton 1-1, Christie 1-4, Robinson 0-1). Fouled out — Levy, Ford, Hamilton. Rebounds — Wake Forest 30 (Levy 8), Clemson 27 (Hamilton, Akingbala 5). Assists — Wake Forest 16 (Gray, Paul 5), Clemson 13 (Christie 5). Total fouls — Wake Forest 29, Clemson 28. A — 7,000.