The landscape of a season can change very quickly, and the Clemson Tigers are enjoying this reality for once.
Clemson seasons over a longer period of time — measured in decades rather than three-year sequences — have quite often veered in the wrong direction this time of year. This has been a characteristic of the Brad Brownell era, yes, but it also applied to Oliver Purnell (before he figured things out) and other predecessors in the head coaching chair at CU. Clemson would have a season-making or season-changing victory within reach, only to let it slip away. Clemson has been on the wrong side of “almost” in basketball. The past four years in college football have been a different story.
This basketball season seemed to be running out of steam and hope for Brownell’s bunch, but after a 59-51 win over Virginia Tech on Saturday, the Tigers are back in the thick of the bubble discussion. So what if Virginia Tech’s Justin Robinson was out? Clemson could not control that aspect of this game. The Tigers had to win. They did, and star player Shelton Mitchell knows that his team put on a different mindset against the Hokies.
“We’ve got our swagger back,” Mitchell said.
Clemson certainly defended with swagger.
The Tigers limited Virginia Tech to just 15 made field goals. The Hokies attempted 53. Clemson defenders constantly made the right rotations and were in the proper spots to wall off and thwart Nickeil Alexander-Walker (3 of 14 from the field, 1 of 5 on threes) and the rest of Tech’s roster. The Hokies’ lack of depth — they played only seven players and played their two reserves for a total of only 22 minutes — was going to matter only if Clemson worked hard enough to make Virginia Tech feel the strain of its limitations. Clemson did exactly that.
“They defended us incredibly well,” Virginia Tech coach Buzz Williams said of the Tigers. “They were prepared for everything.”
As the minutes piled up for the overworked Virginia Tech starters, and as Clemson consistently avoided the lapses and mistakes which could have given the Hokies easy baskets, Alexander-Walker and his teammates got worn down. Their heavy legs, in the face of Clemson’s sustained defensive discipline, could not produce anything. Virginia Tech shot 33 percent and made 10 field goals in the first half. The Hokies shot just 23 percent and made five field goals in the second half, finishing at 28 percent for the game.
Swagger, intensity, clarity — they often flow together. They did for Clemson’s defense on Saturday, and now the Tigers can realistically dream of another NCAA Tournament berth. They are back in the conversation.
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