Both solidified in the Top 25, it’s not surprising that Butler and Clemson will face each other on the final day of the 76 Classic. That they’re relegated to the consolation bracket is somewhat more unexpected.
The No. 12 Bulldogs and 19th-ranked Tigers meet Sunday in the tournament’s fifth-place game in Anaheim, Calif.
Each school got to this point after losing its first-round game. While Butler (4-1) fell 82-73 to No. 22 Minnesota on Thursday, Clemson was upset 69-60 by Texas A&M the same day.
The Tigers (5-1) didn’t have much trouble bouncing back from their first loss with an 87-79 victory over Long Beach State on Saturday. The Bulldogs, however, needed a pair of Gordon Hayward free throws with 0.6 seconds left to beat reeling UCLA 69-67 later in the evening.
Now, one of these two talented squads will be able to salvage a winning trip when they meet for the second time ever. Clemson won 89-69 in the initial meeting during the postseason NIT on March 18, 1999.
Based on its last two contests, Butler likely won’t have an easy time trying to even the all-time series with Clemson.
Sophomore guard Shelvin Mack scored a season-high 21 points while Hayward finished with 11 and eight rebounds Saturday for the Bulldogs, who returned five starters from last season’s Horizon League championship team that didn’t lose its second game until Feb. 2.
Butler held off the Bruins despite shooting 39.6 percent. The Bulldogs are shooting 38.1 percent on the season and 33.6 in their last three games.
“Winning is unusual,” Butler coach Brad Stevens said. “That’s one of the things we talk about all the time. When you play a championship team that has not had its best night, then you know what you’re getting.
“We’re extremely excited that we were able to respond and get the win that way.”
Mack is averaging a team-leading 16.0 points per game after scoring 41 total in his last two contests.
Clemson, meanwhile, hopes another balanced effort will help it leave California on a positive note.
Tanner Smith scored 17 points and Demontez Stitt added 16 on Saturday for the Tigers, who had six players score in double figures for the second time this season.
“If we spread the floor, play as one and move the ball from side to side, teams can’t focus on one player,” said Stitt, who’s averaging 7.8 points and 4.1 assists per game.
After shooting a season-low 33.9 percent against Texas A&M, Clemson bounced back nicely to shoot a season-high 57.6 percent and score 20 points off 15 Long Beach State turnovers.
“It’s a toughness call. It’s important to deal with frustration and adversity because you are going to have missed shots and balls that don’t go in,” Clemson coach Oliver Purnell said. “We can’t lose our focus or panic.”
While Butler beat then-No. 14 Xavier 74-65 on Dec. 23 for its last victory over a ranked non-conference opponent, Clemson hasn’t defeated one since a 62-57 win over then-No. 6 South Carolina on Dec. 17, 1997.