Texas A&M 82, Clemson 74

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COLLEGE STATION, Texas (AP)—Freshman center Joseph Jones made sure Texas A&M’s first postseason appearance in more than a decade was more than a cameo.

And unburdened by A&M’s mediocre hoops history, Jones just might be the one to lead the Aggies to more March victories.

Jones scored a season-high 25 points to lift Texas A&M to its first postseason win since 1982, an 82-74 victory over Clemson in the first round of the NIT Wednesday night.

“You don’t see too many freshman big guys that are that competitive,” first-year A&M coach Billy Gillispie said. “A big freshman like him, competitive like that, is pretty special.”

Jones dominated inside against Clemson’s burly frontcourt in the second half, going 7-for-9 from the field for 19 points, including three powerful two-handed dunks. He also grabbed seven rebounds.

Acie Law added 12 points and seven assists, and Bobby Leach had 13 points for the Aggies (20-9), who were making their first postseason appearance in 11 years. A&M will face DePaul in the second round, with the time and site to be determined later.

“I think we are very dangerous,” Law said. “When everything is clicking in the second half like it was tonight, we can play with anybody in the country … not just the teams in the NIT.”

Freshman guard Cliff Hammonds scored a season-high 26 points to lead Clemson (16-16), which lost in its first postseason game since the 1999 NIT.

Led by Gillispie, Texas A&M has made the nation’s biggest turnaround with a 13-game improvement from the 7-21 finish last season that got Melvin Watkins fired.

Wednesday’s victory gave A&M its first taste of postseason success since a win in the 1982 NIT over Detlef Schrempf-led Washington. To put that in perspective: no one on the Aggies’ roster had even been born yet and Gillispie was starting his coaching career as a graduate assistant at Southwest Texas State.

But with a big, talented freshman like Jones to build the program around, A&M had its first 20-win season since 1986 and only its seventh in school history. A&M also ended its five-game losing streak in the postseason.

The Aggies got an emotional lift from the crowd of 8,532—not bad during spring break—that showed up to see A&M’s first postseason game since a first-round NIT loss to New Orleans in 1994.

“The crowd was a big boost,” Law said. “They give us that little bit of energy we need.”

But Clemson gave A&M fits early on with its smothering full-court pressure and an amazing shooting display by Hammonds.

The Aggies were forced into 12 turnovers and Hammonds scored the Tigers’ final 10 points of the first half, including back-to-back 3s, to give Clemson a 42-34 lead.

A&M rallied with a 15-2 run early in the second half, started by Law’s fallaway 3 at the shot-clock buzzer and ended with his layup that was goaltended to give the Aggies a 51-46 lead. Antoine Wright sparked that run with three steals that led to seven points, including his nifty behind-the-back pass to Jones that resulted in a three-point play.

The 6-foot-9, 245-pound Jones took over from there, scoring 14 of A&M’s next 19 points to hold off a late charge by Clemson. Mostly because of Jones’ bulldozing moves in the lane, the Aggies shot 67 percent in the second half.

“My guards kept feeding me the ball and told me go to work,” Jones said. “I was trying to help out as much as I could.”

The Tigers just couldn’t build on their strong performance in the ACC tournament, which included a first-round win over Maryland before narrowly missing out on a huge upset of North Carolina in the next round.

Clemson needed every one of Hammonds’ points with senior Sharrod Ford, Clemson’s leading scorer and rebounder, struggling against Jones in the worst game of the season. Playing the final game of his career at Clemson, Ford had just three points on 1-for-2 shooting and three rebounds before fouling out with 7 minutes left.

“This definitely isn’t the way I wanted to go out,” Ford said. “It definitely was kind of frustrating. I couldn’t figure out how I wanted to play.”

Shawan Robinson, who scored 41 points during Clemson’s ACC tournament run, finished with just eight points.

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Top Performers

 Top Performers
 Clemson
S. Robinson S. Robinson
3-8,  8 Pts
5 Rebs, 5 Assists
 Texas A&M
J. Jones J. Jones
9-14,  25 Pts
7 Rebs, 1 Assists

Team Stat Leaders

Points
Rebounds
Assists