ACC basketball: Tigers hope to regain swagger
By Pete Iacobelli
COLUMBIA, S.C. ó It’s not the way No. 17 Clemson hoped to end the season or start the ACC Tournament.
The Tigers began the year 16-0 and looked ready for the bigtime when they handed Duke its worst loss in 19 years last month. But they’ve struggled with consistency the final few weeks, going 4-5 and missing out on the league bye that goes to the tournament’s top four seeds.
So Clemson (23-7) will need a four-day splash in Atlanta this week to match its feat of a year ago when it reached the ACC final for the first time since 1962.
It starts Thursday when the Tigers face last-place and 12th-seeded Georgia Tech (11-18).
They had several golden opportunities the past month to lock up an extra day off during tournament week. They let a 19-point second-half lead at home slip away in a loss to Florida State. They fell at 11th-place Virginia when it had lost eight of its first nine league games. And they lost at home to Virginia Tech after leading in the second half when victory could’ve moved them into contention for an ACC regular-season title.
A win last Tuesday against Virginia ó the Tigers’ only victory in their final four games ó gave Clemson, at 9-7, its second straight winning season in ACC play for just the second time in school history and first time in more than 40 years.
Still, Clemson coach Oliver Purnell and his group know they’ve got to pick things up entering the most crucial stretch of the season.
The Tigers got a solid send off Tuesday with a pep talk from Dabo Swinney, Clemson’s high energy football coach.
“He said we’re in ‘survival mode,’ ” senior K.C. Rivers said. “We need to play like we’ve been playing a lot of this year.”Purnell sees too many positives in his team to worry. No matter what happens this week, Clemson should make its second straight NCAA tournament. That’s something that hasn’t happened since the Tigers had three straight appearances from 1996-98.
“I think we’re playing decently going into the ACC Tournament,” Purnell said. “I think we’re close to playing well.”
If not, the Tigers could have to live down another fast-start, late-swoon scenario.
Clemson was 11-0 in 2005-06, 17-0 as the nation’s last Division I unbeaten a year later, then 10-0 in 2007-08.
Each time, it had a difficult time sustaining the run when it came to ACC play.
The Tigers followed up their first streak by going 7-9 in the league in 2006. Another fade came the next year, with Clemson losing nine of its 11 games after the opening success as it slid to the NIT.
Purnell’s not taking Georgia Tech for granted. He remembers too vividly how his team fell behind by 15 points before rallying to win the last time the teams met.
“We cannot afford to look too far ahead,” Purnell said. “The number one thing for us is to advance.”