After an excruciating loss to N.C. State last weekend, the Tigers pulled out a close one against Georgia Tech. K.J. McDaniels scored 14 points and Milton Jennings blocked a potential tying 3-pointer at the buzzer to preserve a 56-53 victory Thursday night.
“We needed that win a lot for our psyche,” coach Brad Brownell said.
The Tigers (13-11, 5-7 Atlantic Coast Conference) extended their domination of the Yellow Jackets (13-10, 3-8), sweeping the season series and winning their seventh in a row overall.
It wasn’t easy.
Georgia Tech rallied from a 12-point deficit in the second half and had a couple of chances to force overtime. Chris Bolden missed badly on a drive with about 10 seconds to go, appearing to get caught between shooting and passing, the ball floating up nowhere close to the rim. But the Yellow Jackets got another chance after Jennings made one of two free throws.
Mfon Udofia took off down the court, looking to get off a 3, and he appeared to have an open look when Daniel Miller delivered a pick to free up his teammate. But Jennings came up from behind to strip it away, and the Tigers celebrated.
The play was especially sweet for Jennings.
Last Sunday, the senior forward missed the front end of a 1-and-1 that could’ve clinched it for the Tigers. Instead, he left open the door for the Wolfpack to pull out a 58-57 win on Scott Wood’s 3-pointer with a second remaining.
“I’m really happy for Milton, making a free throw down the stretch and getting the big block,” Brownell said. “He made the big plays to help us win.”
While everyone else will likely remember the block on Udofia, Jennings was proud of making the free throw that forced the Yellow Jackets to go for a shot beyond the arc.
“That free throw was the hardest free throw I ever took in my life,” he said, “just because of the situation that happened the last game.”
Marcus Georges-Hunt led Georgia Tech with 11 points. The Yellow Jackets nearly pulled out an improbable win after shooting just 17 percent from the field in the first half.
They were much better in the second half, making 14 of 26 (54 percent). But the defense went south, allowing Clemson to shoot at an even better clip, 62 percent on 13-of-21 from the field. Devin Booker added 13 points and eight rebounds for the Tigers, while Jennings had 12 points.
Robert Carter Jr. had a double-double for the Yellow Jackets, 10 points and 11 rebounds.
“Our biggest challenge, and has been since league play started, is being able to maintain and sustain a consistent effort and execution at both ends of the court,” Yellow Jackets coach Brian Gregory said. “When we do put both of those together — a solid defensive effort with good offensive execution — we’re pretty good. When we don’t ... it puts us in a deep hole.”
Clemson appeared to be firmly in control when Damarcus Harrison made an open 3 with 7:51 left, pushing the Tigers to their biggest lead of the night, 47-35.
Georgia Tech responded with a 12-4 run to make a game of it. Miller helped finish off the spurt when he blocked Booker from behind on what appeared to be a clear drive to the basket, and the Yellow Jackets sprinted the other way. Bolden missed on a drive, but Carter tipped it in to cut Clemson’s lead to 51-47 with 3:27 left, forcing the Tigers to take a timeout.
The home team couldn’t complete the comeback.
With just over a minute to go and the shot clock running down, McDaniels drove into the lane and tried to pass to a teammate under the basket. The Yellow Jackets got a hand on it, but the ball went right back to McDaniels. He flipped up a quick shot, just ahead of the 35-second buzzer, to give Clemson a 55-50 lead with 1:02 remaining.
The Yellow Jackets didn’t think McDaniels should’ve even been in position to make the fortuitous basket. Rod Hall threw the ball out of bounds after bumping with Carter, but the officials ruled the Georgia Tech player deflected it. Carter protested vehemently, but Clemson kept possession — and took advantage of it.
The teams slogged through a first half of brutal offensive basketball, filled with airballs, blocked shots (Clemson had six), clunkers from close range, and open 3-pointers that wouldn’t fall.
Georgia Tech went nearly 8 minutes without making a field goal, was just 5-of-29 from the field — and still trailed only 20-15 at the break.
That’s because Clemson wasn’t much better. The Tigers were only 8-of-29 (28 percent), failing to pull away even when the Yellow Jackets couldn’t make a thing.
In the end, the last of nine blocks by Clemson preserved the win, adding to a 63-60 triumph over the Yellow Jackets last month.
The Tigers hope to take that momentum into Sunday’s home game against No. 3 Miami.
“We really needed this,” Booker said.