Mediocre play down the stretch cost Clemson a chance at a first-round bye in the ACC tournament. The good news for the fifth-seeded Tigers is they’ll open against the weakest opponent the league has to offer.
Clemson begins the quest for its first ACC tournament title Thursday afternoon at the Georgia Dome against last-place Georgia Tech.
The 17th-ranked Tigers (23-7) rolled to a 16-0 start and were ranked as high as 10th on multiple occasions in a season highlighted by a 74-47 rout of then-No. 4 Duke on Feb. 4. However, their hopes for a first-round bye in the ACC tournament were thwarted by losses in five of their final nine games, finishing with a 9-7 conference record.
“We’ve had a pretty good year,” coach Oliver Purnell said. “So you can choose to look at (losing) five of nine or whatever, or you can choose to look at the year and say were a pretty good basketball team in a great league. That’s what I think.”
Purnell’s team held a 10-point lead late in the first half of its regular-season finale Sunday, but let then-No. 10 Wake Forest shoot 60 percent and rally for a 96-88 victory. K.C. Rivers and Demontez Stitt each had 21 points for Clemson - Stitt scored a career high - but those efforts went to waste as the Tigers allowed 56 points after halftime.
Despite being the only original member of the ACC never to win the conference tournament, Clemson can draw some encouragement from last year, when it upset Duke in the semifinals and led top-ranked North Carolina at halftime of the title game before losing 86-81.
“We’re going to go back to practice and hopefully try to catch fire and get back to the championship,” said junior forward Trevor Booker, who had 18 points and 10 rebounds Sunday for his fifth double-double in the last six games.
Clemson has won just once away from its home court in four tries over the past month, but the lone victory came over the Yellow Jackets - 81-73 on Feb. 22. Booker had 21 points and 12 rebounds and Rivers added 19 points to carry Clemson to a sweep of the regular-season series.
The Tigers, though, have lost both of their previous meetings with Georgia Tech in the ACC tournament, in 1986 and 2003.
The outcome may be different this time against the Yellow Jackets (11-18), whose season had few highlights other than a 76-74 upset of then-No. 6 Wake Forest on Jan. 31.
Georgia Tech’s only win since that one was a 78-68 home victory over Miami on March 4. The Yellow Jackets followed that game with a regular season-ending 67-66 defeat at Boston College last Saturday when Rakim Sanders hit an off-balance jumper with 1.7 seconds remaining.
Lewis Clinch and Gani Lawal each had 16 points for Georgia Tech. For Clinch, it ended a stretch of four straight games with at least 20 that included a 27-point effort in the Feb. 22 loss to Clemson.
The winner of this contest will face the fourth seed - No. 22 Florida State - in a Friday afternoon quarterfinal matchup.