Clemson will officially go into the NIT semifinals as the underdog, but after a 10-win ACC season and three straight hard-fought victories, the Tigers aren't likely to step onto the floor at Madison Square Garden next Tuesday feeling like one.
The Tigers, 23-12, will take on surprise NCAA tournament omission, 25th-ranked SMU at 7 p.m. in the first of two NIT semifinal games. Florida State will face Minnesota in the 9 p.m. contest, with the winners playing Thursday for the NIT title.
SMU, Florida State and Minnesota all entered the NIT as No. 1 seeds, and all lived up to their billing. The Tigers, a three-seed, clawed their way to New York City with victories over Georgia State, Illinois and Belmont.
SMU, coached by 74-year-old Basketball Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown, claimed its spot in the field Wednesday night by edging California 67-65 at Dallas.
Nic Moore provided the winning margin with a three-pointer with 6.5 seconds remaining, after Cal had taken a 65-64 lead.
SMU, 26-9, regained the lead for the first time in more than 8 minutes when Nick Russell, one of two Mustangs seniors, made a reverse layup with 36 seconds left.
With the sellout crowd on its feet — jumping up and down while screaming their loudest — Justin Cobbs made a 3-pointer with 15 seconds left to put the Golden Bears (21-14) ahead.
Cobbs had one more chance in the closing seconds, but his game-ending shot ricocheted off the rim as time expired.
SMU had reached the quarterfinals by beating Cal-Irvine 68-54 and LSU 80-67.
In Brown, the Tigers will go against one of basketball's coaching greats. Brown, who is finishing his second season at SMU, is the only head coach to win both an NCAA title and an NBA Championship, having won an NBA title with the Detroit Pistons in 2004 and an NCAA title with Kansas in 1988.
Brown, a 1963 North Carolina graduate, was enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame as a coach on Sept. 27, 2002.
Meanwhile, at Tallahassee, Aaron Thomas scored 14 of his 21 points in the second half and Okaro White had 14 first-half points as Florida State, 22-13, defeated Louisiana Tech 78-75.
Louisiana Tech's Raheem Appleby missed a pair of 3-point attempts in the final seven seconds that could have tied the game.
Thomas has scored 20 or more points in all three of FSU's NIT wins. White finished with 20 points and eight rebounds.
Kenneth Smith had 16 points and 14 rebounds, and Cordarius Johnson added 11 points for Louisiana Tech, which finished 29-8.
The Seminoles opened NIT play with a 58-53 victory over Florida Gulf Coast, and then switched gears and outscored Georgetown 101-90 in the second round.
Minnesota earned its spot in the finals with an 81-73 victory over Southern Mississippi, led by Austin Hollins' career-high 32 points.
Hollins, playing in his school-record 139th game, scored 12 straight points in a span of 1:42 to erase an eight-point first-half deficit. He made all 10 of his foul shots, including six straight in the final 48.1 to hold off the Golden Eagles, who had closed to within 78-73.
Joey King scored 15 and Maurice Walker added 12 for Minnesota, 23-13) which is in the NIT semifinals for the second time in three years and seventh overall.
Southern Mississippi, 29-7, who was led by Neil Watson's 16 points, lost in the NIT quarterfinals for the second straight year. USM tied a school record with its 29 victories.
Minnesota opened NIT play with an 88-81 win over High Points and then advanced with a 63-55 victory over St. Mary's.
Robert Morris 89, St. John's 78
Florida State 58, Florida Gulf Coast 53
Georgetown 77, West Virginia 65
Belmont 80, Green Bay 65
Minnesota 88, High Point 81
Clemson 78, Georgia State 66
Arkansas 91, Indiana State 71
Missouri 85, Davidson 77
Saint Mary's (Calif.) 70, Utah 58
Illinois 66, Boston University 62
Louisiana Tech 89, Iona 88
Georgia 63, Vermont 56
Southern Miss 66, Toledo 59
SMU 68, UC Irvine 54
LSU 71, San Francisco 63
California 77, Utah Valley 64
Belmont 82, Robert Morris 71
Louisiana Tech 79, Georgia 71
Clemson 50, Illinois 49
Minnesota 63, Saint Mary's (Calif.) 55
Southern Miss 71, Missouri 63
Florida State 101, Georgetown 90
SMU 80, LSU 67
California 75, Arkansas 64
Clemson 73, Belmont 68
Minnesota 81, Southern Miss 73
Florida State 78, Louisiana Tech 75
SMU 67, California 65
Follow Kerry Capps on Twitter @oandwkc