RALEIGH, N.C. (AP)—No Clemson team has started a season better than these current Tigers. And no other team in the nation can match their perfect record.
Instead of downplaying his Tigers’ place in history, coach Oliver Purnell is urging them to cherish it.
Vernon Hamilton scored 21 points and No. 17 Clemson beat North Carolina State 87-76 on Tuesday night to match the best start in school history and remain the only unbeaten team in Division I.
“Embrace it. Enjoy it. But at the same time, as you’re embracing it and enjoying it, understand that if you want to keep it going, you have to do the things that got you here,” Purnell said. “They’ve done a pretty good job of that. … I think they’re embracing it, but at the same time they’re staying grounded.”
The Tigers (17-0, 3-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) shot nearly 56 percent and used a 15-3 run which bridged halftime to equal the school records for best start and longest winning streak.
K.C. Rivers and James Mays both added 16 points for Clemson, which also started 17-0 in 1986-87.
“We’re enjoying it—we’re taking it in each and every day, but at the same time we know that these are wins that we must have if we want to continue to expand our winning streak,” Hamilton said. “We’re hearing how good we are, but we’re staying humble.”
Gavin Grant had 22 points and Ben McCauley added 15 for outmanned N.C. State (10-6, 0-3), which lost its second straight since a three-game winning streak against non-conference foes.
The Wolfpack opened ACC play with three losses for the first time since 1999-2000, when they went on to finish 5-11 in the conference.
“We are so young, we’re going to be able to get something out of every game this year,” McCauley said. “We just need to build off of what we did wrong and get back on the winning track.”
Clemson improved to 28-0 with Mays in the lineup. He led the Tigers to an 11-0 start last season before he was declared academically ineligible, and the team went on to lose 10 of 13 games.
“James doesn’t bring (his record) up too often—he just talks about how happy he is to be back, and we tell him how lucky we are to have him back,” Hamilton said.
Clemson took the lead for good early against the Wolfpack, held a comfortable advantage for much of the way and took command shortly after N.C. State closed within 37-36 in the final moments of the first half.
“They’re going to make runs at you, they’re going to cut leads and N.C. State had some great runs,” Hamilton said. “But we’re an older team now. … We’re just really playing well together, and we know how to adjust from being in these type of environments.”
Rivers started the run when his 3-pointer with 26 seconds left made it 40-36.
Then, Cliff Hammonds and Hamilton started the second half with consecutive 3s to key the decisive spurt, which was capped when Mays’ putback dunk made it 52-39 with 16:35 to play. N.C. State didn’t get closer than six points the rest of the way.
Dennis Horner and Brandon Costner both had 14 points for the Wolfpack.
“If we get the ball inside and kick it outside and get some open shots, that will really jump-start our offensive night,” McCauley said. “If we just run our offensive sets, and we work the ball inside-out, we might knock down some open shots from the outside, and that will open up the inside for Brandon and I to work. That’s what works well for this team. Tonight we didn’t do that so much, and that’s what hurt us.”
Clemson ended a four-game losing streak in Raleigh, and won at the RBC Center for the first time since a 66-63 victory on Feb. 27, 2000. N.C. State entered having won eight of the previous nine meetings with Clemson.
The short-handed Wolfpack played only six players until the final minutes, and were without point guard Engin Atsur. Atsur has been nagged by a hamstring injury which kept him out of nine straight games before Saturday’s loss to Boston College.
Rivers put the Tigers ahead to stay when his 3-pointer about 5 minutes in made it 14-13.