Tigers miss another shot at a breakthrough

Oliver Purnell is an even-keel kind of guy, not prone to wild swings of emotion one way or another.

But it would be a surprise if he didn’t spend Sunday afternoon’s flight from Miami to Clemson feeling, well, a little depressed.

With 3:14 left, his Clemson basketball team had a shot at a key ACC road victory, up six points on Miami with momentum in a stranglehold.

But 83 seconds later, the Hurricanes had the lead for good after three Jack McClinton 3-pointers, hanging on for a 75-72 win that snapped their three-game winning streak.

And once again, an opportunity to join the ACC’s elite had passed Clemson by like a supermodel brushing by a geek on South Beach.

Win and the Tigers would have been 4-2 in ACC play and — at worst — fourth in the league heading into Saturday’s visit from Boston College.

Instead, they’re 3-3, tossed back into a muddled middle-of-the-pack mix that includes Virginia Tech, Maryland, Miami, N.C. State, Wake Forest, Georgia Tech and Florida State — also known as pretty much the rest of the ACC.

The ACC is tough — especially when you’re playing away from home. And to be fair, Sunday’s disappointment was an improvement from the last time Clemson visited Coral Gables, a 62-38 debacle that was one of Purnell’s ugliest losses at Clemson’s helm.

But it is still bitterly disappointing considering what could have been, a phrase Clemson followers have probably grown tired of uttering considering the late-game breakdowns which have piled up over the last three seasons.

Recently, the Tigers appeared to have turned a corner with overtime wins over Florida State and Wake Forest. And they’re clearly more mature than last season, when a 17-0 start turned into another NIT appearance.

However, Purnell still must prove he is capable of taking Clemson to the next level — and we’re not talking about turning an NIT runner-up finish into a title. Clemson hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 1998, and if it happens this season, it won’ t come easily.

Athletic senior forward James Mays is already playing with a broken left hand after missing five early-season games with a sprained left hip. And fellow big man Trevor Booker left eight minutes into the game Sunday with what appears to be a high left ankle sprain, the toughest kind of sprain to recover from.

If he misses any time, his replacement will be athletic-but-inconsistent junior forward Raymond Sykes, who plays hard but doesn’t have Booker’s scoring or rebounding ability.

Relying on junior swingman K.C. Rivers (who went scoreless in the second half Sunday), senior guard Cliff Hammonds and ever-improving freshman point guard Demontez Stitt will be crucial, too.

Look, Clemson’s season is far from over. They started Sunday with a No. 25 RPI against the nation’s 44th-toughest schedule, both of which will help come NCAA Tournament selection time.

But as Sunday proved, nothing will be given to them.

They’ll have to earn it.

© 2008 OrangeAndWhite.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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