Grinding away and gutting it out are usually tactics of survival instead of blueprints for success, but the hard, unglamorous work paid off for Clemson on Saturday at Littlejohn Coliseum.
Tough, aggressive defense kept the Tigers close with Virginia in the first half. When the offense finally got in on the act in the final 20 minutes the Cavaliers had no answer in Clemson’s 59-44 victory in an early – but key – Atlantic Coast Conference clash.
Milton Jennings hit back-to-back 3 pointers to put the home team ahead 31-24 early in the final half and he and Devin Booker kept up the scoring pressure the rest of the way, giving the home crowd plenty to cheer about in an early afternoon battle.
“This was a hard-fought win,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said. “Really proud of the way our players competed. Any time you play a Tony Bennett-coached team it’s going to be a grind.”
Jennings finished with 21 points and 11 rebounds, hitting 5-of-8 of his 3-point attempts.
Booker added 15 points and nine boards, with nine of his points coming from the free throw line on a 9-for-12 showing at the stripe.
And while the Tigers’ two post players found their shooting touch Virginia (11-5, 1-2 ACC) mostly struggled from the floor, fading down the stretch and becoming Clemson’s first ACC victim of the season.
The winners closed out the game with a 10-2 run over the final 3:14.
“Me and Book had to step up,” said Jennings, who helped his squad improve to 9-6 overall and 1-2 in league play. “I told him I’d hit the boards as hard as he did and we’d see what happened.”
The performance was a big confidence booster for Jennings, who has struggled at times this season with both his emotions and his play.
“I have to give credit to the coaches, my teammates and a little to myself for this game,” he said. “The coaches put in some new plays for me and showed their confidence and I had to do my part.”
Bennett was certainly impressed by the Tigers’ 1-2 punch.
While the Wahoos were able to do a creditable job defensively against them for a while, they barely contained them after intermission.
“Booker is the most physical presence we’ve seen,” Bennett said. “They run a hard, physical offense and we tried to trap some and pressure the ball, but when Jennings is hitting bank shots for three it’s tough.
“And as the game wore on (Booker) got a little deeper and they made some feeds to him.”
Aside from an 11-9 lead midway through the opening half Virginia never led. Midway through the final half all the Cavs could do was play catch-up – which proved futile.
“I was really pleased with the play of our offense,” Brownell said. “There were stretches where I was pleased with the way we played in the first half even though we just scored 24 points. I thought we were moving the ball better and making the next pass. We attacked and played with a more aggressive mentality most of the game.”
Clemson avoided its patented slow start for a change, jumping out to a 4-0 lead thanks to quick buckets from Jennings and Rod Hall.
But points still came at a premium and neither team was able to sustain much shooting success, with the Tigers hitting 36.8 percent from the field to the Cavs’ 40.9 percent clip.
Both were 25 percent from beyond the arc.
The hosts’ lead would never grown larger than four and Virginia led by two on two separate occasions.
By halftime Booker has seven points and Clemson clung to a 24-20 lead.
When the final horn sounded Clemson’s shooting percentage was up to 51.5 percent and UVa’s had dipped to 35.4 percent.