NCAA Hopes Fading Fast

CLEMSON – As Cliff Hammonds sat against the wall in the interview room, his voice had a tone and his face a look of complete and utter disgust. The usually reserved and quiet guard finally reached his boiling point with the way he and his Clemson teammates have been playing the last month.

His frustration hit the all-time high following Maryland's 82-66 victory Sunday at Littlejohn Coliseum. The defense by the Tigers was poor and once again, they went into a complete meltdown offensively in the final five minutes.

And after starting the season 17-0, Clemson is 2-7 over its last nine and in danger of a complete collapse that would rival that of this year's football squad.

"We're on the brink of ruining the season after we started out so good," Hammonds said in a still soft voice. "That will be a disgrace to go to the NIT after the way we started the season. It's time now. It's been time. It's time to man-up."

The situation for Clemson is so dire that head coach Oliver Purnell said he will strongly consider a lineup change for the Duke game Thursday night.

"I'm definitely concerned about making the NCAA Tournament and I'm definitely concerned about making something happen here at the end," he said.

The Tigers (19-7, 5-7 ACC), which trailed for nearly the entire game, trimmed the lead to one at 59-58 with 8:17 let to play.

From there, however, Maryland (20-7, 6-6 ACC) went on a 23-8 run to close the game. Of course, the Terrapins were aided by Clemson only scoring three points over the last five minutes.

The exact same thing happened Wednesday at Wake Forest when the Tigers blew a lead and scored just three points over the final six minutes.

"Certainly our inability to score at the end of the game is troublesome," Purnell said. "You press a little bit and you want things to happen. It's not for a lack of trying."

Even if the Tigers had been able to score down the stretch, it's unlikely they would have won anyway because of their bad defense.

Maryland scored on 12 of its final 13 possessions, including its last seven.

"You still look to run the fast break (in the last five minutes)," Maryland coach Gary Williams said. "But you don't take a bad shot. You really have to be good to have 15 seconds on the shot clock and run a play and not panic."

And that in a nutshell may be the very difference between the Terrapins, who have won four-of-five after starting 2-5 in the ACC, and Clemson, which is in a tailspin.

"They're playing like a team that wants to make it to the tournament and that's the kind of effort we need," Hammonds said.

With each mounting loss and scoring slumps in the closing minutes, it becomes even more difficult for the Tigers to regain any confidence.

"Losing some close games here and there kind of messes with you mentally," Tigers forward James Mays said. "Our goals with each loss seem like they're slipping away."

Maryland shot 56.1 percent for the game and outscored the Tigers 46-24 in the paint. When James Gist wasn't scoring down low, the three guards in D.J. Strawberry, Greivis Vasquez and Eric Hayes were ripping the much more experienced backcourt of the Tigers.

Strawberry was 9-of-15 from the field and finished with a game-high 22 points, while Vasquez, a freshman, was 5-of-8 for 15 points, while dishing out a career-high 11 assists. Hayes, also a freshman, added six points, four assists, four rebounds and two steals.

Also, it's not coincidental that the downslide for the Tigers happened at the exact time guard K.C. Rivers dove headfirst into a shooting slump.

Rivers, who scored in double figures in each of the first 18 games of the season, has reached the 10-point mark just twice in his last eight. He had nine points Sunday.

During this stretch, he's made just 5-of-33 (15 percent) from beyond the 3-point line and shooting just 38 percent from the field overall.

"We expect a lot out of K.C.," Hamilton said. "K.C. is a big part of this basketball team, but winning these kind of basketball games is something we still should be doing."

That seems to be the frustrating part for players as well as the fans. The talent seems to be there, but it disappears for stretches at a time. Needless to say that if it continues, the Tigers can kiss their first NCAA Tournament since the 1997-98 season goodbye.

"If we can come out and play in the next four and get on a roll heading into the tournament, we'll prove we're an NCAA Tournament team," Hammonds said. "But if we come out and play like we did tonight, we'll be in the NIT and that would be a disgrace coming out like we did.

"We're playing our way toward the bottom (of the league). The next two-week span will decide whether we deserve (the NCAA Tournament) or not."

Once again, the junior has been the most consistent player on the court for Clemson over the last month. He finished with a team-high 16 points, while handing out a career-high 10 assists. He played 39 minutes and has become the only player coach Oliver Purnell doesn't have to worry about playing well.

TURNING POINT: With about 4:30 left to play and trailing 66-63 with possession, Vernon Hamilton missed a 10-foot shot, which was the beginning of Clemson's scoring meltdown. Starting with Hamilton's shot, the Tigers were 1-for-8 for the field, with three turnovers and 0-for-1 from the free throw line.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I don't think we're worn down physically. We've had a number of breaks here lately. Mentally … maybe so," Tigers head coach Oliver Purnell said. Top Stories