After starting 17-0 to become the last remaining undefeated team in the nation, the Tigers fell apart, going 2-9 over their next 11 games. And just when it seemed all was lost and the team had totally dissolved into the biggest chokers in maybe college basketball history, they turned things around.
Clemson won its final two games of the regular season, before losing on a bogus call against Florida State in the first round of the ACC Tournament. Not even that or the disappointment of not making the NCAA Tournament made the Tigers quit, as so many just assumed they would.
"We easily could've gone down that path," point guard Vernon Hamilton said. "We had a couple of rough stretches and we let our season go down the drain after the way we started."
Clemson has now won its last three games, and five of its last six, to advance to the semifinals of the NIT and play in Madison Square Garden in New York City. It's not what most expected after a perfect start, but it beats sitting at home and watching basketball on television.
"Not getting into the tournament was an eye opener for us," said Hamilton, the lone senior. "We knew from that point forward that if we lost the season was going to be over. And none of us were quite ready for it to be over, and we stuck together."
Without question, the hardest task head coach Oliver Purnell had was to convince his players that all wasn't lost and there was still plenty to play for. He told them that if they could get to New York City that they would have a totally different feeling about playing in the NIT.
"Coach never gave up on us," Hamilton said. "He always said he was going to coach us through the last second of every game. He believed in us the entire time. We started to hold our heads down a little bit, but he regrouped us and got us back together and it really paid off.
"He just stayed on us. He'd say, ‘I don't understand why you guys are feeling sorry for yourselves, we still have so much to play for.' That opened the doors for us to see we have a great opportunity in front of us right now."
Clemson (24-10) will play Air Force 9 p.m., Tuesday, with the winner advancing to Thursday's championship game against the winner between West Virginia and Mississippi State.
It's not the Final Four that is to be held in Atlanta, but it's still a very solid accomplishment and one that has indeed gotten the players excited again.
"But it still doesn't take away all that bad taste we got in our mouth from the ACC Tournament and not being selected (for NCAA Tournament)," guard K.C. Rivers said. "We've got a chance to play for a championship – it's not the NCAA Championship, but it's a championship.
"This trip is going to help us. Things don't go your way all the time, and we understand that finally."
Tigers Show Heart
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