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For the first time this season and maybe in Oliver Purnell's three-year tenure at Clemson, the Tigers went to a zone defense themselves and discovered what it's like to be on the other end of a scoreless drought.
With just under 15 minutes left in the game, Clemson went to a zone defense out of necessity and it worked wonders as Georgia Tech managed just three baskets the rest of the way and the Tigers went on to the 73-63 victory Saturday at Alexander Memorial Coliseum.
It's the first ACC win for the Tigers (14-5, 3-3 ACC) away from Littlejohn Coliseum this year. It was also the first home conference loss for Georgia Tech (9-7, 2-3 ACC).
"I'm real happy to get a road win in this league at any time, particularly when you have a stretch of road games like we do," Purnell said. "You want to break those up and stay out of losing streaks in this league and if you do that, particularly when you win on the road, you have a chance to be successful."
On this day, it all clicked for Clemson. The Tigers made free throws, jump shots and played a stellar zone defense.
Trailing 57-50, Clemson's 2-3 zone forced the Yellow Jackets to go 3-for-16 over the last 14:19, as Clemson outscored them 23-6 down the stretch. Georgia Tech was just 2-fo-12 from 3-point range in the second half.
"The reason we went to the zone was that we had trouble guarding their double low post action with (Jeremis) Smith and (Ra'Sean) Dickey," Purnell said. "So, we went to some zone and we were successful and the reason we stayed with it was that it as successful."
As if that weren't enough, Clemson forced the Yellow Jackets into a season-high of 27 turnovers. It was the most by a Georgia Tech team since it committed 29 against Duke in January of 2002.
"One of the things we talked about was using pass fakes, but we didn't do that," Yellow Jackets coach Paul Hewitt said. "Every pass became an adventure. Credit to them for changing up the defense to see if we could adjust to it."
When the Tigers were on offense, it ran through center Akin Akingbala like it hasn't all year. Clemson was able to take some of the outside pressure off the guards by doing so, which enabled them to either penetrate or shot from long range.
Of course, it wouldn't have amounted to much if Akingbala didn't make his shots from in close or if the guards couldn't knock down the shots like against Miami. Fortunately for the Tigers, neither happened.
Akingbala tied his career-high with 19 points, which caused the defense to collapse around him.
"Akin can be a monster down there," Clemson guard Vernon Hamilton said. "Akin is a real dominant player, so we wanted to get him a lot of touches this game."
With the defense trying to smother Akingbala, the likes of Julius Powell and Hamilton were able to get open looks at the basket. Powell hit his last six shots, including four three-pointers, to tie his season-high of 16 points.
Hamilton finished with 12 points on 5-of-9 shooting. Guard Shawan Robinson added 15 points of his own, but eight of them came down the stretch from the free throw line to ice the game."
"In the ACC, every road win is big," Akingbala said. "In this conference, everybody beats up on each other and you've got to protect your home court and find a way to get some road wins."
As a team, Clemson shot 41.4 percent from the field, but more importantly it was 6-of-14 from 3-point range and 19-of-29 from the free throw line. But it was the defense that made Purnell happiest.
"We decided to not be frustrated and we knew that Georgia Tech was going to make some runs," Purnell said. "There are good athletes in this league and good teams and we're going to have offensive droughts. To keep things in perspective, we are a team that has to fight for 15 rounds and we can't deter from that and our guys clearly got that message today."
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