Illinois 76, Clemson 74
What looked early to be the least competitive game of the entire Big Ten-ACC Challenge ended up being its most intense.
Early on, the Clemson Tigers could do no wrong, as Trevor Booker showed exactly why he’s in the discussion for ACC Player of the Year. No Illini big man was able to figure out how to keep Booker’s 240-pound frame from getting near the rim. Despite a fairly tepid shooting percentage (at one point mid-way through the half, everyone other than Booker was 3-14), the Tigers’ best player was having his way on the offensive glass. He even hit an early three-pointer to keep the Illini D honest.
Despite being dominated on the boards, the Illini hung tough for about 10 minutes. Hindsight shows that the key plays in the first half occurred when star guard (and leading ballhandler) Demetri McCamey went down with two early fouls, then came back in and picked up a third “cheap” foul. But halfway through the opening period, the Illini were still in a dead heat with the home team.
This was largely due to freshman guard Brandon Paul’s explosiveness. Paul opened the game with a three, made some terrific flashes to the rim–including a highlight reel dunk– and stuffed a Demontez Stitt dunk attempt (that admittedly came as a result of his own turnover). Mike Davis also started hungry for Illinois, scoring an old-fashioned three point play on the second possession and making a couple of nice baseline spin moves for two more baskets.
McCamey’s absence finally took its toll, though, as Clemson’s renowned pressure ratcheted up a few notches after about the 10:00 mark. Guard D.J. Richardson and center Mike Tisdale were both confounded into a couple of backcourt turnovers. And the freshman troops for Illinois (Richardson and Paul) just did not recognize the need to come TO the ballhandler outside the three-point line. Davis, Tisdale, and reserve Dominique Keller set some nice double-screens that went unused, as well. In short, the Illini offense just completely stagnated.
On the other side of the court, the Tigers went on a 26-4 offensive rampage. Harvey Grant’s son Jerai wasn’t exactly a slouch inside either, giving Booker time to a blow. He attacked the rim with the same tenacity as his better-known teammate. Guard Andre Young was a bright spot in the first half as well (he played 28 minutes overall), knocking down a couple of threes and keying some of the Illini turnovers. Stitt made a couple of nice dribble drives and though he did force the issue in the lane at times, the shots were rolling in for the Tigers en route to a 20-point halftime lead 47-27.
For those ten minutes, Clemson looked like it could contend with North Carolina for the ACC title. The talking heads in the ESPN studio were understandably celebrating yet another ACC victory over the Big Ten.
Things started even better for Clemson as the second half opened, with Tanner Smith making a nice drive to the bucket for two.
But somewhere after the first media timeout of the second half, Clemson seemed to lose its focus–even the crowd got complacent after a raucous first half. The Tigers’ free throw shooting started to dip. They started to settle for outside shots, ignoring Booker (though the Illini did a much better job denying entry passes than they did in the first half). Deflections, loose balls, even a Trevor Booker “own goal” all went against the Tigers. But the biggest factors in the Tigers’ unraveling were their 11 second half turnovers prior to the 8:45 mark–after committing only two in the entire first half.
McCamey picked up his fourth foul with 13:49 to play, but Weber rolled the dice and left him in, desperate to keep his team’s leader on the floor. His confident presence was clearly a calming influence on his younger backcourt mates.
Brandon Paul hit a three at the 15:00 mark to start the turn of the tide. But the Illini didn’t rely exclusively on outside shooting to come back. Tisdale made a nice move inside; Mike Davis picked up a backcourt steal and a three-point play to cut the lead to 14.
Tisdale continued to hustle, making some solid interior passes to frontcourt mate Davis. D.J. Richardson hit a three from the corner, and three minutes later drilled an ill-advised shot from the top of the key that turned into a four-point play. All of a sudden it was a four-point game after a 22-4 run.
The Illini completed the comeback at the 9:20 mark after two missed free throws by Andre Young and two made free throws by Brandon Paul. Paul then stole the ball off a loose pass by Potter and gave the Illini a lead at 8:45.
Play-by-play announcer Brad Nessler asked aloud if viewers had ever seen a game turn this quickly–and Illini fans immediately thought back to the team’s most famous comeback against Arizona in the 2005 NCAA Midwest Regional Final.
Clemson did regain some of its poise late in the game, as Brian Narcisse picked up a key offensive rebound at the 3:00 mark. Typical of the Tigers’ woes in the second half, though, he failed to convert on the three-point play. The last remaining bright spot was a huge Tanner Smith three from the corner to give the Tigers a two-point lead with 2:10 remaining.
Tisdale continued his dominant second-half play in the post, making a nice spin move for an easy bucket and then a remarkably smooth baseline drive-and-bank that wound up being the game-winning bucket for the Illini–completing the largest comeback in school history.
Clemson Season Outlook
It sure feels like we’ve seen this movie before with the Jekyll-and-Hyde Tigers. Loaded with some pretty nice talent — Booker, Stitt, Grant, and Smith make up a nucleus that can compete with any team in the country — Clemson just can’t seem to close the deal when it matters most.
The Tigers’ pressure in the first half was a sight to behold. McCamey, Davis, and Tisdale have faced similarly-styled pressure from Missouri with ease the last two seasons but Oliver Purnell’s version seemed more strategic and less frenetic. When they’re at their best offensively (playing within themselves, feeding Booker, getting to the rim, and getting offensive rebounds) they look like a legitimate top-four seed in the NCAA Tournament.
But the second half exposed the team’s habitual immaturity. They desperately need a floor leader (presumably Stitt) to get everyone on the same page at the offensive end of the floor. And they’ve got to keep up that intense defensive pressure for a full 40 minutes.
It’ll be interesting to watch how Clemson responds to this game. Tiger fans will be hoping it doesn’t lead to a tailspin as it has in so many previous seasons.
Illinois Season Outlook
It’s unclear what to take from this game for the Illini. Clemson certainly makes you play sloppy (and I mean that as a compliment to the Tigers)–at times, their pressure is just relentless. The freshmen for the Illini eventually responded but only with McCamey’s presence. While his remarkable maturation from a year ago is a major plus for Illinois, the flipside is that a lack of a secondary ballhandler is a major weakness.
Lack of beef on the interior could also be a major deficiency in the rugged Big Ten. Will the Illini be able to out-quick or out-finesse the likes of Delvon Roe, Chris Kramer, and Jon Leuer? One wonders what the rebounding margin will look like against the teams at the top of the league.
Illinois’ outside shooting is dramatically improved from a year ago, but this backcourt is not exactly the three-headed-monster of Brown-Williams-Head just yet. At least in this game, though, they weren’t nearly as reliant on it. Mike Davis got plenty of touches down low right from the beginning, and he and Tisdale played a nice two-man game in the second half.
Brandon Paul established himself as one of the leading candidates for Big Ten freshman of the year, impressing at both ends of the floor throughout the game. And give plenty of credit to Bruce Weber as well. The team responded to his halftime coaching adjustments to deny post passes and create plenty of backcourt turnovers.
In terms of the “eye test,” the Illini looked to me like an 8-9 seed at this point in the season. Consistency and maturity from Paul and Richardson could dramatically increase their placement come Tournament time, however.