Hammonds Exorcises Free Throw Demons

CHARLOTTE – There Cliff Hammonds stood, just a measly 15 feet from the hoop with the eyes of millions watching and a chance to give Clemson a win. It was a situation very familiar to him, but one that had been very, very cruel.

Over the course of his career, especially over the first two years, Hammonds was called upon time and time again in the final seconds of tight games to either win it with a jump shot or with free throws.

In several instances, Hammonds came up short and the Tigers wound up losing. Even so, Hammonds was always the first one to meet the media after the game and account for his failures.

It began to become painful having to relive the same scenario over and over.

"I don't get why I'm so bad at shooting free throws," he said. "My percentage has gone down every year. This year I've missed a lot more than I've made."

Then Saturday's ACC Tournament semifinal game against Duke rolls around and sure enough, there stands Hammonds, a 46 percent free throw shooter, at the charity stripe in the final minutes with the ability to help his team.

With Clemson nursing a 67-60 lead with 3:13 seconds left to play, Hammonds clanked two free throws and came up empty, which kept the Blue Devils alive, which is a very, very dangerous thing to do.

"I stepped up to the line confident I was going to make them," Hammonds said. "I just missed them."

Even with the misses, the Tigers were able to maintain their lead, though it had shrunk and was in a very precarious situation.

Clemson led 71-69 with 48.1 seconds left after a 3-pointer by Duke's Greg Paulus. On the ensuing inbounds, Hammonds got the ball and was fouled immediately. Why not? History says he'd make one at the best, thus giving the Blue Devils an opportunity to tie the game with another 3-pointer.

So, with 43.4 seconds showing on the clock, Hammonds was set to face his old nemesis – meaningful free throws.

"I wasn't thinking about (the two misses)," he said. "I was just thinking that I've got another shot to knock them down."

The first one was perfect, splashing perfectly through the net without touching the rim, which caused a massive roar from the majority of Bobcats Arena. The second one was exactly the same, which gave the Tigers a 73-69 lead.

The two makes lifted the spirits of the entire team, for the players felt that if Hammonds is making free throws, then a win is destined to happen.

"There have been instances where I've missed," Hammonds said. "That's all happened throughout my career. To be as bad as I am, to step up to the free throw line witch confidence, it was definitely gratifying."

But the game wasn't over. Hammonds still had more to prove from the free throw line. However, this time the pressure wasn't quite as big. Clemson led 76-72 with 5.4 seconds left to play.

And once again, swish, swish. Hammonds, a native of Cairo, Ga., made his last four to lead the Tigers to one of their biggest wins in school history.

"I was definitely relaxed at the line," he said. "I've been practicing hard all season and fortunately tonight they fell for me."

Clemson assistant coach Ron Bradley, who has been there for all of Hammonds' trials and tribulations at the free throw line, acted as though there was never a doubt the Cairo, Ga., native would come through in the clutch.

"Never bet against Cliff Hammonds," he said. "Never bet against him."

No one was happier to see the made shots than fellow senior and one of Hammonds' best friend, Sam Perry.

"If you don't get the big free throws by Cairo, Duke's not heaving it up at the end, they're going for a real shot," he said. "Cairo drained them. I don't think they ever touched the net.

"Once again, the ball is in the hands of a veteran and a leader and he buries them. You can't write it up any better than that."

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