K.C. Rivers and Clemson haven’t had any problems on the offensive end, ranking among the nation’s highest scoring teams while staying perfect through 15 games.
That doesn’t mean the Tigers can’t mix in a little defensive intensity as well.
One of three unbeaten teams remaining in Division I, No. 12 Clemson will try to push the nation’s longest winning streak to 16 games on Saturday afternoon at Littlejohn Coliseum when it kicks off ACC play in earnest against North Carolina State.
The Tigers (15-0, 1-0 ACC) are averaging 81.6 points through the first two months, tied for 16th in the nation. Rivers, a senior guard who’s increased his average each season, leads the way, scoring 15.1 points per game while grabbing 6.2 rebounds.
Rivers played well in Clemson’s ACC opener on Dec. 21 at Miami, going 10-for-15 and putting up a game-high 28 points in a 91-72 win.
The Tigers have played three non-conference games since, including a visit from Alabama on Tuesday. Rivers struggled with his shot, going 5-for-16, but junior Trevor Booker led the way with 19 points and Clemson used some lock-down defense to top the Crimson Tide 66-59.
“We call it mental focus,” Rivers said. “When you want to do something, you’ve got to focus in on doing it and (coach Oliver Purnell) has made us focus in on stopping on defense. And that’s what we did. We bought in.”
The Tigers’ perfect start—No. 4 Wake Forest and top-ranked Pittsburgh are the only other unbeatens—was in jeopardy when the Tide took a 42-41 lead with 14:16 remaining. But Rivers had a pair of baskets to spark a 14-0 run, putting the game out of reach.
“We got the key stops that got us the insurmountable lead,” Rivers said. “Defense is what’s going to win it for us.”
Rivers was a sophomore two years ago when Clemson started the season 17-0. The last win of that undefeated run came at N.C. State on Jan. 9, 2007, but the Tigers followed that up with a 2-9 stretch, and failed to make the NCAA tournament.
That was the first of three consecutive wins over the Wolfpack (9-3, 0-0) for Clemson, which is about to get into the meat of its schedule. Following the visit from N.C. State, the Tigers will host Wake Forest and then travel to third-ranked North Carolina.
If the Wolfpack are to kick off their conference slate with a win, however, they’ll have to do something that hasn’t been done in over a year. Clemson has won 15 in a row at Littlejohn Coliseum dating to a 10-point loss to Charlotte on Jan. 9, 2008.
N.C. State has dropped three games by a total of 10 points, all to quality opponents. But the disconcerting part of the Wolfpack’s three losses - to Davidson, Marquette and Florida - was that they led at the half of every game.
The biggest lead of the three came last Saturday in Gainesville, where N.C. State held a 33-23 lead through 20 minutes. But the Gators scored 45 points after the half, including the deciding basket with 11 seconds to play, and won 68-66.
The Wolfpack lost despite a season-high tying 24 points from junior Brandon Costner, who leads the team with 14.8 ppg.
Costner will likely need a similar performance if N.C. State is to have a chance to knock off Clemson, but that won’t be easy. He had one point over 35 minutes in two games against the Tigers last season, going 0-for-9 from the field.