Or the line, rather; the foul line, where Tiger guard Demontez Stitt made six-straight free throws in the final 0:26 to seal the victory. The freshman's clutch accuracy was that much more notable compared to the home team's 19-of-31 showing from the stripe. The Tigers weren't brilliant as a whole, 28-of-38. But when it mattered Clemson made good.
As did most Tiger players, starters or backups, on either end of the floor. Unlike the Bulldogs. "A couple less turnovers, a couple of offensive turnovers, and it's a different game," guard Jamont Gordon said. And, he added, "A couple of made free throws and it's a different game."
"I've said all fall missed free throws and turnovers may not get you beat in a 30-point game," Bulldog Coach Rick Stansbury said. "But every game is not going to be a 30-point game and tonight is a good example."
As well as a bad example of taking care of ball and business alike. While the Bulldogs actually out-shot Clemson 44% to 34%, they also had more turnovers and fewer rebounds to more than offset the edge in overall accuracy. "Every game there's all types of plays that are the difference in winning and losing," said Stansbury. "We made too many plays that were just bad plays when fighting against a good team."
Among all those just-bad plays one series stood out, the score tied 65-65 and State with the ball as the clock neared five minutes. "We felt we had this game in our hands," guard Barry Stewart said. Point guard Gordon slashed the middle of Clemson's man-defense but got in too far and tried to dump the ball to center Jarvis Varnado. The pass was picked by Clemson guard Cliff Hammonds who not only went the distance for a layup but was fouled in the process by MSU guard Ben Hansbrough.
It was called an intentional foul, too. Hammonds made just one of the free chances but Clemson kept possession and forward James Mays scored a rebound for a 70-65 lead. The Bulldogs would edge back ahead one more time but that single series changed everything.
Clemson kept the early pace to their liking, making opportunities and shots alike in half-court schemes while the Bulldogs missed jumpers and fell behind 8-2 at four minutes. After clanking his own longballs Gordon dished to Hansbrough for an open three-pointer to start a surge. Forward Charles Rhodes scored on consecutive trips, the first after blocking a shot at the other end, for State's first lead at 9-8. But he also got his second personal soon after.
It was 13-all when Stansbury drew a technical as Clemson was in transition. The Tigers made both free throws, then consecutive layups while State lost the ball three-straight trips. The 9:06 lead was 21-13 with Sykes at the line, but he missed both chances. The Bulldogs got to the line at last and hit three-of-four to trim the deficit. And at the other end they switched to a zone that sealed off driving lanes and left Clemson missing from the perimeter.
Backup center Brian Johnson boarded Gordon's missed second free shot and scored it for a 23-21 margin. Clemson responded with a K.C. Rivers trey when State went back to man-defense, and Rivers snow-birded for a 30-23 lead. An iffy charge call on Gordon negated a made layup that would have had State within two, and Hansbrough also had a basket waved off on the same sort of call after a three-point play by Jerai Grant. Clemson took a 39-32 lead to their locker room.
"Naturally we didn't play well the first half," Stansbury said. "We were fortunate to only be down seven and Charles on the bench. I felt we'd get some things going and get back in it, and we did."
With help. Clemson had six turnovers in the opening half; they had half that many in the first minute of the last period, while Rhodes and Varnado combined for five points. Rhodes also got his third foul at 16:51 but stayed on-court to beat the CU press for a dunk and 47-43 deficit. It wasn't until Johnson dunked a rebound and Gordon called his own number for a trey that State caught up 52-52 at nine minutes. And after taking a charge to negate a Mays rebound-layup, Gordon fed Rhodes for a go-ahead dunk.
Suddenly both teams went wild at the arc, matching treys with Gordon sticking a pair as State evened things up at 65-each. And, set up that momentum-turning exchange. Even after that the Dogs weren't done thanks to Johnson He dunked a Rhodes miss, the drove for another slam and 71-70 Bulldog lead at 2:22. "We've been looking for somebody, we found a guy off that bench in Brian," said Stansbury. The transfer from Louisville, who'd scored 13 points with 13 boards on Clemson in the 2006 NIT, got ten points this time.
But Clemson's Mays put his side back ahead with free throws, and Gordon fell into a three-man trap and charged. A kickout to Rivers open in the right corner produced three points and a 77-73 Tiger lead. A Stewart bomb had State back within 78-76 and half-a-minute still showing. That was before Stitt stepped to the stripe and delivered, meaning Rhodes' rebound basket at the buzzer only mattered on the stat sheet.
Rhodes had 17 points, six boards, and four blocks in his foul-limited 25 minutes. "I don't think I had a good game at all. I'll take the blame because I missed some free throws, and when I got those fouls I was shaky about going so hard." And Rhodes took his bench-time in the first half hard, though "I was cheering like a walk-on" he added.
"We're very glad to get out of here with a win over a very good team that has a couple of all-star players," Tiger Coach Oliver Purnell said.
Gordon topped all with 23 points and a dozen rebounds, though he had six turnovers against three assists. Stewart had 12 points and Johnson ten. Clemson forward Rivers and backup-guard Terrence Oglesby both had 17 points and a trio of treys each, while Mays muscled for 14 tough points and 11 rebounds. Hammonds had 13 points with five Tiger assists. State blocked ten of Clemson's 70 shots from the field, six by Varnado.
But those numbers didn't matter as much as the final score. "A few turnovers, a few missed block-outs," mused Stewart. "They capitalized on our mistakes and we've just got to get better capitalizing on theirs."
The Bulldogs have a single day to get better before playing Tennessee-Martin at The Hump this Saturday evening, 7:00.