CLEMSON – In their quest to move forward in the postseason beyond next month’s ACC Tournament, the Clemson Tigers took a step backward on Saturday.
Brad Brownell’s charges were looking for another resume builder when No. 17 Virginia came to Littlejohn Coliseum, but the Cavaliers showed why they’re one of the best teams in the league by gutting out a 63-58 victory in front of 8,573 fans.
The loss was the third straight for the Tigers, who fall to 15-9 overall and 6-6 in the ACC.
Virginia, second only to unbeaten Syracuse in the conference standings, improves to 21-5, 12-1.
The Cavs have a nine- game winning streak in league play for the first time since 1981-82 and the most ACC road wins (six) since the 1982-83 campaign.
“Disappointed in the loss but thought we played well in a lot of ways,” Brownell said. “Late in the game their execution offensively was very good. They finished the game like a 12-1 team. They passed the ball and moved the ball well and we couldn’t quite get the stops at the end.”
After a good shooting first half both teams struggled in the second, with Virginia hitting 25 percent and Clemson, 33 percent.
But the Tigers made just 18 field goals for the game to 23 for the winners, which helped offset six less made free throws by Brownell’s crew.
Virginia came away with points on eight of its last nine possessions.
“We have to do a better job on defense,” said Clemson forward K.J. McDaniels, who led all scorers with 24 points but finished with just four rebounds. “We have to do a better job there because it all starts with defense. It’s tough but we just have to learn how to find ways to win.”
Clemson was missing 5.6 points and 6.1 rebounds with starting center Landry Nnoko out with the flu but the home team had more problems than that, losing the rebounding battle, 33-20.
Clemson had only four offensive boards through 40 minutes.
“With Nnoko not being there we thought we had a mismatch and we were able to capitalize on it,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “K.J. had just one offensive rebound and that was significant.”
Brownell admitted the loss of Nnoko hurt his team, but didn’t dwell on it.
“It’s obvious Landry, with his size and length, he would’ve helped us,” Brownell said. “But I don’t like talking about it because it takes away from the guys who did play.”
McDaniels was the only double digit scorer for Clemson but freshman swingman Austin Ajukwa hit a pair of threes and made a good showing in 13 minutes.
Virginia 63, Clemson 58
“I just wanted to be ready when my name was called,” Ajukwa said.
Guard Joe Harris paced four double figure Cavs with 16 points, followed by Mike Tobey (14), Malcolm Brogdon (14) and Anthony Gill (12).
Akil Mitchell contributed nine boards.
“You don’t get anything easy against Clemson’s defense,” Bennett said. “Every time you do something well that’s a good deposit that you can draw on and (keep from getting) flustered. In a game like this, defensively the way Clemson plays, you’re going to have some rough spots.”
Clemson looked strong early, taking an 8-2 lead in the first three minutes thanks to can’t-miss shooting.
And the Tigers were able to keep some distance between themselves and the Cavaliers for the next several minutes, holding leads as large as seven points. But once they cooled down and UVa heated up, everything changed.
McDaniels post another monster game
The Cavs took their first lead of the day with 5:58 remaining in the first half as Harris drained a three to give the visitors a 24-21 edge.
The Virginia lead grew as large as six before Clemson scrambled to close the gap.
McDaniels got a pair of quick baskets to pull the hosts to within a point at 29-28, but Tobey scored on a tip-in at the buzzer that gave the Cavaliers a 31-28 advantage after 20 minutes.
McDaniels and Tobey were the only players to hit twin figures in the first half with the Tigers’ forward tallying 11 and Tobey, a center, logging 10.
Still, both teams were making the most of their shots with Virginia going 63.6 percent from the floor and Clemson bagging 50 percent of its attempts.
The percentages plummeted after halftime, but Virginia still got the best of the deal.
“We’ve lost two games here by a possession or two,” Brownell said. “It’s one or two plays every game. The hard part is to keep fighting.”
The Tigers are back on their home court on Tuesday when North Carolina State comes in for a 7 p.m. tip.