CLEMSON – A boisterous, capacity crowd of 10,000 gave the Clemson Tigers a “sixth man” against Illinois on Sunday morning in the second round of the National Invitation Tournament.
The five guys on the court deeply appreciated the help, especially at the end.
Crowd energizes Tigers over Illini
Hall layup leads to Tigers' win
Illinois took its only lead of the game 2:05 from the finish when Jon Ekey nailed a three to make it 49-48, but a Ron Hall layup with :09 showing on the clock lifted the Tigers to a heart-stopping 50-49 victory at Littlejohn Coliseum.
It was a similar play to Hall’s drive at the end of the ACC Tournament game against Duke.
Like that one there was no foul called - but it didn’t matter this time since he got off the shot and it found the bottom of the net.
“I just tried to focus on what I was doing,” Hall said. “I guess that game went through my mind a little bit but I just came down and made a good layup.”
Illinois (20-14) had a chance to win it at the end but Tracy Abrams’ 3-point try with three seconds left fell short.
Clemson (22-12) then inbounded the ball with just over a second flashing on the scoreboard, Hall kept the floor-length pass from going out of bounds, and that was it.
“We had them a couple of times where our fans were into the game and Illinois would come up with a play,” Tiger boss Brad Brownell said. “But we really played well the last three or four plays of the game.”
Brownell made a point to thank the Tiger faithful for their support.
“It was special to come out to Littlejohn today and see 10,000 fans,” he said. “We appreciate those folks getting up early, going to church early and spending the day with us. I told our players before the game when I got here at 9:30, there was already a line at the gates and I had goose bumps on my neck because I was proud to see that kind of support for our program.
“I told our players I thought it was a great way for the fans to thank us for what we’ve been doing down the stretch. I think they appreciate how hard our team has played and how much we’ve improved. In return we thought the best way to thank them was to play hard today.”
It was a defensive showcase from wire to wire, with Clemson registering nine blocks but getting just two offense rebounds out of 32 caroms. The Illini managing 25 boards in all with just five coming on the offensive end.
The home team, playing without Jaron Blossomgame (who is sidelined with a leg injury and will miss Tuesday’s game as well), ended up hitting 48.8 percent of its shots to 37.5 for Illinois - and made big plays when big plays had to be made.
The Illini were 3-of-21 from 3-point range.
“We’re definitely an offensive talented team,” said K.J. McDaniels, who led the Tigers with 12 points (eight coming via monster dunks) and four blocks. “But we knew we had to play great defense. We played our game. It’s the game we always play at Littlejohn.”
Landry Nnoko finished with 11 points, eight rebounds and three blocked shots for the Tigers while Jordan Roper added 10 points.
Rayvonte Rice had 15 points to pace Illinois and Ekey scored 11.
“Half the 3-pointers we took, Clemson did a great job defending,” Illinois coach John Groce said. “But the other half (the defense) wasn’t even in the same zip code. If we just go 7-of-27 (from beyond the arc) we have a chance.”
The Tigers set the tone early and except for being tied at 4-4, had command of the Illini for the first 20 minutes.
A Nnoko free throw and Sidy Djitte jumper bookended a 7-0 run that gave the Tigers an 11-4 lead, and after Illinois cut its deficit to 18-14, Roper drained the first 3-poiinter of the morning to make it 21-14.
Brownell’s team saved its largest lead for the end of the opening half when Austin Ajukwa canned a trey to give the hosts a 28-19 edge and the raucous crowd even more reason to cheer.
“Ajukwa gave us a spark off the bench,” McDaniels said.
Tigers going small, going forward
Roper was the only player to hit double digits (10 points) in the first half but McDaniels already had three blocked shots on his stat sheet.
Clemson kept Illinois at arm’s length for most of the second stanza until the Big Ten rep’s late run.
The one time the winners gave up the lead at the 2:05 juncture, however, was also the last time they allowed Illinois any points.
Now Brownell and company turn their attention to Belmont (26-9), a team that also wants to spend early April in New York.
“Belmont is a terrific team,” Brownell said. “They have five guys who can really shoot the ball. We’re going to spend all day Monday as coaches trying to prepare for them.”