CLEMSON — You could see it slipping away, right before your eyes.
A bricked front end of a one-and-one opportunity. A pressured 3-pointer from the wing. Another bricked free throw.
A raucous Littlejohn Coliseum grew quieter with every Clemson miss, every solidly executed Arizona possession.
A moment, an opportunity slipped from Clemson’s grasp Saturday night.
The Tigers had No.8 Arizona firmly on the ropes with 12 minutes remaining, but the Wildcats clawed back and took advantage of Clemson’s mistakes, riding an 30-12 second-half run to an 66-54 win. Clemson made only three baskets in the final 11:32 and made just nine of 17 free throws.
Arizona outrebounded the Tigers 44-33, including 20-12 on the offensive end.
“When we play good basketball we can play with a lot of teams,” said Clemson coach Brad Brownell. It’s still a situation where when you look at it, we’ve played two high-level teams (in Arizona and Gonzaga) reasonably well at times in games. For whatever reason we haven’t been able to finish. I don’t know if that’s our youth, experience at the guard spot, wasted possessions.
“We don’t have that go-to scorer that can settle a team down.. get into what you need to, go make something happen. That’s the problem at times.”
Arizona improved to 7-0, while Clemson fell to 5-3. The Tigers have a week off for final exams before facing Florida A&M next Saturday night.
“They kind of took control of the game,” said freshman guard Adonis Filer. “With them being a top team, they did a good job with it. You expect that from a top-10 team. We’ve just got to do a better job at the end of games closing.”
Senior forward Milton Jennings led Clemson with 15 points, while sophomore guard K.J. McDaniels contributed 13. Arizona senior guard Mark Lyons led all scorers with 20 points.
Poor shot selection coupled with Arizona’s superior strength and athleticism allowed the Wildcats early dominance, but Clemson finished strong with trademark suffocating defense, closing to a 28-24 halftime deficit.
The Wildcats held an early 5-4 lead and pulled away with excellent defense and solid offensive execution, reeling off a 17-4 run.
Brownell burned a pair of timeouts as the Wildcats ran wild; Lyons turned a Jennings turnover into a fast-break slam, giving Arizona a 22-8 lead with 8:51 left in the half.
Clemson responded with a 9-0 run keyed by a pair of finishes at the hoop from McDaniels and Damarcus Harrison; McDaniels’ dish to Harrison cut the lead to 24-17 and forced a Sean Miller timeout.
Arizona scored only one basket in the final 9:27 of the half, missing 14 of 15 shots.
McDaniels’ follow slam cut the lead to 26-24, bringing a near-capacity Littlejohn crowd welcoming the first top-25 non-conference visitor in 12 years to its feet and roaring.
The Tigers climbed back to a 35-all tie with 15:43 to play thanks to relentless defense and driving offense.
Rod Hall’s layup gave Clemson its first lead, 37-36, and Miller wanted another timeout to talk it over with 12:52 left.
McDaniels sank a pair of free throws following a Kevin Parrom intentional foul on a breakaway dunk, and Hall somehow increased the noise level by draining a 3-pointer from the right wing as the shot clock expired, pushing the lead to 42-36 – a 34-14 run.
“I told them to stay with it,” Miller said. “Coming here, we didn’t expect to roll in here and think it’d be easy. We knew it was going to be hard. My message, what we talked about, was what it feels like to be on the other end, and get back to executing. Don’t let this moment become bigger. The crowd is loud, they’re on a run, but let’s get back to who we are.
“It wasn’t a great pep talk. I wanted to make sure in that timeout that we didn’t lose complete focus, say, ‘Not tonight, or, ‘Wow.’ To see us not get caught up in that, from that point on, I thought we played some excellent basketball.”
Arizona responded with a pair of free throws and two inside buckets to tie the game at 44.
Clemson hit back in kind; on the very next possession, Jennings drained a 3-pointer from the left wing, taking the lead right back.
It would be the Tigers’ last field goal until another Jennings 3-pointer with 1:03 to play – a drought of 7:42. With Arizona holding a four-point lead, senior forward Devin Booker and Filer each missed the front end of a one-and-one free throw opportunity.
A Kaleb Tarczewski dunk with 7:06 gave Arizona the lead for good, and a Grant Jerrett jumper from the right wing, followed by a pair of Lyons free throws, extended the Wildcats’ lead to 53-47 with 5:15 to play.
“When you’re losing, get into a run, need a run to end, you miss two free throws or miss a front end and your drought continues, that puts a lot of pressure on you,” Brownell said. “We start to gamble more at the end in some of our stances late, possessions late, and don’t play as sound.”
Brownell called a timeout to quell the momentum, but it did little good.
By the time Jennings ended a five-minute scoring drought with a free throw, the Wildcats’ lead was eight, and Clemson consistently struggled to score in half-court sets.
“For a team that’s struggling, we need consistency, to know who’s playing, what we need to do,” Brownell said. “If we’ve got to play differently with different lineups, that’s becoming a problem.”
Back-to-back layups by Lyons and Parrom extended the lead to double digits with 2:13 left, and the Tigers were essentially finished.
“I believe our defensive intensity went down a little bit,” McDaniels said. “We got confused on a few plays. We had to be in the right spot at the right time. I believe that got mixed up.”
Sophomore forward Bernard Sullivan missed the game with a mild concussion suffered against South Carolina. He is averaging 1.7 points and 1.4 rebounds per game.