Illini Lose Heartbreaker To Clemson

The Fighting lIlini fought valiantly but lost a heartbreaker to the Clemson Tigers at the Assembly Hall Tuesday night, 76-74. The Hall had an electric atmosphere as players and fans alike were primed for the important matchup of unbeaten teams. A crowd of 14,741 and a national television audience was treated to an exciting game.

Illinois had a chance to tie or win the game at the end. Clemson point guard Demontez Stitt missed a free throw with :11.1 seconds left in the game, but the Illini couldn't get off a shot before the final buzzer.

Illinois coach Bruce Weber explained his strategy for the last shot.

"On the last play, we made a decision in the huddle that if there was a miss, we were gonna push it. We had a double ball screen, and we were gonna flair for Trent (Meacham). I thought Trent was wide open, so I didn't call time out. I guess Demetri didn't see him.

"The reason I went for 3 was because I didn't think we would win in overtime, to be honest. I didn't think we had enough energy, Chester (Frazier) couldn't have gone any more, and they had the momentum. It's disappointing we didn't get a shot off to give us a chance."

Except for the loss, Weber was generally pleased with his team's effort while praising a talented and highly athletic Clemson squad.

"I thought we were ready to play. It was a pretty good environment, the crowd was into the game. For the most part, we handled their press. I think we got tired down the stretch.

"I thought their point guard Stitt was the key for them. He's their energy. For us, it's Chester Frazier. But Chester just wore down. His leg gave out. He said he couldn't even bend it, and he's trying to guard one of the quickest guys we're gonna see. And that took a toll on him. He had some careless turnovers in that one stretch.

"They have great balance, they are a very good team. They know how to win, they know how to win on the road. You've got to give them alot of credit. We did some good things and gave ourselves a chance."

Clemson coach Oliver Purnell was relieved with the victory.

"Obviously, we were very pleased to get out of here with a hard-fought win. Neither team played a pretty basketball game, but our pressure had an accumulative effect in terms of wearing them down. We were tired at the end, and we tell our club that we fight hard, so they've got to be tired. We're used to playing this way.

"I think the last 6 minutes we did what we like to do at the end of the game. We got the ball into (Trevor) Booker alot, we defended and we didn't turn the ball over. We said before the game if it came down to the last 6 minutes, the advantage was to us."

Purnell agreed with Weber about the hero for the Tigers.

"Demontez Stitt was obviously big for us for getting the ball in the lane and giving us some easy opportunities. He did a good job defensively and was a pest out there as well."

Both teams were hot early. The pace was frenetic as Clemson pressed and trapped on defense, and they passed and shot quickly.

Illinois took an early 18-14 lead, but the Tigers' quick-twitch athletes responded with a rally of their own to take a 23-22 lead. The Illini then exploded. Mike Davis grabbed a rebound, outlet the ball to Frazier, who led Trent Meacham for a layup. On the next Clemson possession, Davis again grabbed a missed shot, threw downcourt to Frazier and then received the return pass for a resounding dunk. The fans went wild.

Dominique Keller found the touch late in the half. He pushed through a 12 foot swisher then made a beautiful up-and-under layup of his own offensive rebound. Keller later added a third bucket.

Richard Semrau, replacing an ineffective Mike Tisdale, swished a 15 footer, and Trent Meacham drove baseline for a layup. The Illini finished the half with a last second corner shot from Davis to make the halftime score 40-32.

Davis had 12 points at the half, but he was even hotter to begin the second half, scoring Illinois' first 10 points. But little by little, Clemson's defense clamped down, limiting the Illini's ability to run offense. The Tigers took their first lead at the 11:25 mark of the second half, 55-54. The lead continued to change hands until the last couple minutes of the game.

Stitt penetrated at will, frequently finding Booker for easy shots near the hoop. The high-jumping Booker was the most dynamic player on the floor, and no Illini could defend him. McCamey made it close with a 2, a 3 and two free throws, but it wasn't enough.

Davis scored a career-high 28 points on 12-19 shooting from the field and four free throws. He also pulled down 8 rebounds. McCamey ended with 20 points and three assists. Frazier broke his own career assist record with 12, and he scored 7 important points. But also handed over 5 turnovers as he struggled with his sore leg. Richard Semrau saw 27 minutes of action while replacing the discouraged Tisdale, and he finished with 8 rebounds.

Illinois outrebounded Clemson by 12, their 15 offensive boards especially impressive. And they shot 51.7% from the field and 87.5% from the free throw line. Unfortunately, they allowed Clemson to shoot 57.9%, mostly on layups and dunks.

Davis was surprisingly upbeat and determined afterward.

"We did good to start 6-0, and now this loss is gonna show how we're gonna man up on Saturday against a good Georgia team and redeem ourselves. We've got to take this to heart and forget about it. We showed tonight we can play against one of the top teams. Clemson is a real good basketball team."

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