Clemson 74, Syracuse 70
CLEMSON, S.C. (AP)—Even as Syracuse stormed back, Clemson’s K.C. Rivers kept thinking one thing: Madison Square Garden.
“The only thing on my mind was going to the Garden,” Rivers said. “That’s all I was thinking about, ‘I’m going to go to the Garden.”’
Rivers guaranteed that Wednesday night, getting a career-high 29 points and Clemson (24-10) advanced to the NIT semifinals with a 74-70 win over Syracuse.
Rivers had been to New York before and gone past the famous arena lit up at night. He dreamed he’d one day get to play there. The past two NIT games, Clemson broke huddles with the shout “Garden.”
To do it, though, he and his Tiger teammates had to withstand a Syracuse rally that cut a 17-point deficit to 69-68 in the final seconds.
Again, remembering his goal, Rivers delivered. He hit a pair of foul shots with 18.5 seconds left to extend the lead. The Orange (24-11) could not answer.
“We played with our hearts and our minds today,” Rivers said. “We left everything out there.”
It was the Tigers’ ninth straight NIT victory at home. But this one did not come easily.
Syracuse trailed 69-68 on Demetris Nichols tip-in with 19.8 seconds left. However, Rivers, the team’s best free-throw shooter, hit both his foul shots.
Josh Wright’s open 3-pointer with about 10 seconds left bounced off the rim and into the arms of Tigers guard Vern Hamilton.
Hamilton followed with two foul shots to clinch the victory.
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said there was too little time left to find another shooter. The Orange finished 3 of 16 on 3-pointers with Nichols making all three.
Boeheim said it’s difficult to come back from any deficit on the road.
“To come back (from) a lot, they showed a lot of heart.”
This is Clemson’s first trip to the NIT semifinals since 1999. Then, the Tigers were second to champ Cal. This time, they can keep a curious streak alive for the Palmetto State as they try and become the third straight South Carolina team—the Gamecocks won the past two NITs—to hold the trophy.
And it’s an unexpected run for the streaky Tigers. They opened the season 17-0 and were the last Division I team to lose. But they stumbled the rest of the way, going 4-10 to fall from NCAA tournament contention. Even a top seed in the NIT’s South region, guaranteeing three home games, wasn’t enough to rally the Tigers at first.
Three victories later, Clemson is flying high.
“We could’ve easily hung our heads in this tournament,” Rivers said. “But we didn’t. We fought all the way to the final four.”
Clemson will take on Air Force in Tuesday’s semifinal.
Tigers fans stormed the court when the game ended. The Littlejohn Coliseum began flashing photos of Manhattan and the “world’s most famous arena,” while Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” played in the background.
Eric Devendorf had 23 points to lead Syracuse while Nichols added 20.
Certainly, this game didn’t look like it would have much drama.
Clemson, behind Rivers’ outside shooting that battered Syracuse’s matchup zone, grabbed a double-digit lead by halftime. When Raymond Sykes flew in for a crowd-pleasing jam, the Tigers were up 58-41 and planning their trip to the Big Apple.
But the Orange are familiar with MSG, too, staging many memorable Big East games there. They began aggressively taking the ball to the basket to chip away at the large lead.
Terrence Roberts had two foul shots, a tip-in and a dunk and Syracuse cut the deficit to 63-59 with 2:53 left.
Devendorf’s driving basket with 1:04 to go made it 67-66. Clemson reserve David Potter answered with a basket before Nichols’ basket with 19.8 seconds left again brought the Orange within a point.
That’s as close as Syracuse could get. Maybe Orange fans should take heart. The last time the team played in the NIT in 2002, it came back the next season with its NCAA championship.
Clemson coach Oliver Purnell thought his team’s NIT run showed that it deserved NCAA inclusion. But he didn’t think the selection committee lost “a lot of sleep over it,” he said.
Rivers, who had 21 points in the opening half, continually found open areas to take his 3-pointers.
Rivers had a three-point play to put Clemson ahead 21-14. After Cliff Hammonds hit a 3-pointer, Rivers followed with another from beyond the arc for a 27-14 lead.
When the Orange got back to 28-23, Rivers swished a spectacular 3 from the front edge of Littlejohn Coliseum’s mid-court tiger paw logo—estimated at about 30-feet from the basket.
Boeheim, frustrated with his team’s poor play, complained to the officials at the half’s end—and got a technical foul.
Before the second half began, Rivers hit the two foul shots to push Clemson’s lead to 40-27.
Rivers, a sophomore, topped his previous best of 24 points, set earlier this season against Appalachian State.