After his team earned a spot in the National Invitation Tournament semifinals, Clemson coach Brad Brownell played down the “wow factor” of competing at Madison Square Garden.
“The Garden should be great,” he said. “I could be wrong – we may be in awe of it and not play well early on.”
He wasn’t wrong.
In fact, Clemson played very well early.
It was the second half that proved to be the Tigers’ undoing.
Clemson Brad Brownell after SMU NIT game
SMU took its first lead with 5:09 to play and Larry Brown’s Mustangs erased a 12-point halftime deficit with a huge second half surge to stun Clemson, 65-59, on Tuesday in New York City.
SMU (27-9) moves on to play the Florida State-Minnesota winner in the NIT championship game on Thursday while Clemson’s season ends at 23-13.
“Didn't get off to great start in the second half, and unfortunately we saw the second side of our team a little bit this year,” Brownell said. “We struggle offensively at times, and we just didn't shoot the ball very well in the second half.”
Brown, 73, is the only coach to have both an NBA and NCAA championship on his resume and is now one “W” from adding an NIT crown to the list.
“I think first half, Clemson did about as well as any team that we've played against,” Brown said. “They controlled the tempo. They had much more energy than us. They executed great and we didn't have
much to say at halftime except that we had to match their energy, possibly play harder than them and I thought best half we played all year; to hold them to 21 after the way they dominated us in the first half was really exciting.”
Markus Kennedy was the spark for the American Athletic Conference club, scoring 21 points and grabbing nine rebounds.
Nic Moore added 13 points and Nick Russell, 12, for the winners.
SMU won the rebounding battle, 35-25.
Rod Hall paced Clemson with 18 points, followed by K.J. McDaniels (11), Damarcus Harrison (10) and Nnoko Landry (10).
McDaniels also blocked three shots, giving him 100 swats for the season.
He also said he still hasn’t decided if this game was his last in a Clemson uniform.
“I’m not really thinking about it right now,” he said. “This is just - you know, I'm just still kind of in shock, and, you know, I still have a lot of improvement I can do for myself. So that's nothing I'm really thinking about right now.”
After being in complete control for the first 20 minutes the script flipped after the break.
The 12-point Clemson lead began to evaporate after the Mustangs found their stroke and started rebounding better while denying the Tigers open shots.
After moving in front by 13 the Clemson edge was down to 45-40 with 11:42 remaining and Brown’s youngsters were riding a wave of momentum and poised to make a big push.
A Ryan Manuel dunk made it 45-42 and Russell tied it at 45-all with a long range bomb at 10:27.
It was tied again at 53-53 with 5:29 remaining but SMU didn’t get its first lead of the game until Kennedy hit a pair of free throws with 5:09 showing on the clock to put the tally at 55-53, Ponies.
Neither team had much success scoring field goals down the stretch and with 1:43 left the Mustangs were clinging to a 56-55 lead.
Kennedy added a hook at 1:27 to make it 58-55 and SMU went to the line with :26 to go with a chance to put it away.
But Moore missed the front end of a 1-and-1 and Clemson responded with a McDaniels dunk at :24 to pull to within one again at 58-57.
Russell made it 60-57 at :12 with two foul shots, but Clemson still had time.
Hall was fouled at the :08 juncture, hit both freebies, and it was 60-59.
However, a long inbounds pass resulted in a layup by Kennedy and a foul, and the sophomore forward’s old-fashioned 3-point play put the score at 63-59.
The Tigers turned the ball over on the next possession and were forced to foul with :04 left in their season, allowing Southern Methodist to wrap it up at the charity stripe.
“Still, it was an outstanding year,” Brownell said. “I think the only people that felt like we were going to have a good season this year were the players and coaches. You know, we … "grinded" is a term our players use. We talked about it a lot as a team.”
The game’s ending was nothing like its beginning.
SMU was out of sync right from the start, turning the ball over on its first three possessions.
Meanwhile Hall opened the game for Clemson with a 3-pointer, McDaniels followed with a jumper and Nnoko floated one in to give the Tigers a 7-0 lead.
But once the Mustangs settled down they got back in the hunt, going inside for easy baskets and reeling off seven straight points to cut what was once a 10-2 Clemson lead to 10-9.
Clemson players and coach talk after NIT
At 13:49 SMU tied it up at 13-all thanks to a Kennedy layup, and it was game on at Madison Square Garden.
However, Clemson managed to regain control with under seven minutes to go half with a 9-0 run, moving in front 28-18 to seize its largest lead.
Harrison bagged a long three at 2:54 to make it 33-22 in favor of the ACC reps, and the Mustangs looked to be in trouble.
Harrison put an exclamation point on the first 20 minutes with another 3-pointer as the clock ticked away, giving the Tigers a 38-26 cushion at the break.
Hall and Harrison led the charge with 11 and 10 points, respectively, while Kennedy had 8 points for SMU.
“Moving forward, I think we know how to play with the lead,” Hall said. “The few games that we had the lead in the first half, kind of came out sluggish and teams got after us and made a lot of baskets that we shouldn't have gave up.
“That's going to be the biggest thing, just play with the lead.”