CLEMSON – Georgia Tech’s Ramblin’ Wreck ran smoothly for a while on Tuesday at Littlejohn Coliseum - then Clemson’s engine finally heated up.
By the end of the game, however, both teams had smoked, sputtered and ultimately crashed – but it was a worn-out Clemson squad that was able to crawl away with the win.
The Tigers, playing for the fourth time since Jan. 20, used a late first half flurry to take a six point lead over the Yellow Jackets and had enough in the tank down the stretch to take a 63-60 victory before 7,059 rowdy fans.
K.J. McDaniels hit two clutch free throws with 16 seconds to go to force Georgia Tech into trying a three to beat the clock. The chance to send the contest to overtime was lost when Brandon Reed’s contested shot was off the mark, ending the physical battle in favor of the home team.
“I was just thinking about after every practice we shoot about 10 free throws,” McDaniels said of his last appearance at the line. “And everybody on the team told me they knew I’d make them both. We just have to step up in different ways.”
The victory improves Clemson to 12-8 overall and evens its Atlantic Coast Conference mark at 4-4 while Brian Gregory’s Yellow Jackets fall to 11-8, 1-6.
“These kinds of grinding games are the kinds we need to win,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said. “Three games in six days is tough. Our guys were exhausted.”
They weren’t too tired to get done what needed to get done, though.
“That last defensive possession by us was great,” Brownell said. “It wasn’t just five seconds to defend a three, it was 13 second or whatever it was.”
McDaniels led Clemson with 15 points, while Milton Jennings had nine points and nine boards.
Daniel Miller scored 15 for the Yellow Jackets, with Kammeon Holsey scoring 14 and Marcus George-Hunt finishing with 11.
“In this league you have to play 40 minutes,” Tech coach Brian Gregory said. “Give Clemson credit. Over a 40 minute period they played better than we did.”
The Tigers parlayed their halftime edge into an 11-point lead early in the second half and forced the Jackets to play catch-up the rest of the night.
The Atlantans made things too close for comfort with a handful of runs – pulling to within three points four times and cutting it to two at 61-59 with 23 to go.
With 17 seconds on the clock Mfon Udofia went to the line with a chance to tie it for Tech, but missed the front end of a one and one.
He made the second to tighten things up to 61-60.
McDaniels then hit the key foul shots to set up the frantic finish.
The teams came out firing threes to start the game, with the first four buckets coming from beyond the arc. Unfortunately for Clemson, Georgia Tech got three of those and that set the tone for early domination by the Yellow Jackets.
While a Bernard Sullivan cut the Jackets’ lead to 15-10 at 13:30 the visitors came back shooting, getting a couple of big buckets from Holsey and moving in front by 10 at 22-12.
But Tech’s hot shooting wouldn’t last, nor would Clemson’s struggles.
Although Brownell’s team still fell victim to a series of miscues while trying to cut into the deficit, the Tigers finally settled down.
Baskets by Jordan Roper and Adonis Filer closed the gap to 26-22, and then Roper got behind the defense and dunked his team to within a pair at 26-24 with 6:06 to go before halftime.
At the 3:08 juncture McDaniels found the range from long range, draining a three to put the Tigers down by just one, 30-29.
It was McDaniels who gave Clemson its first lead of the game with a slam off a Booker miss, and a 10-run to end the half was capped off by a McDaniels layup that put Brownell’s team on top after 20 minutes, 36-30.
“It’s good for our guys to go through these type games but it’s not good for me,” Brownell said. “But I’m proud of them. It was just a really gutsy performance by my guys.”
Clemson gets a few days rest before taking on Boston College on Saturday at B.C.