Clemson 68, Air Force 67
NEW YORK (AP)—The Clemson Tigers walked off the court at Madison Square Garden thrilled to be playing for a title—and relieved to be done with Air Force.
K.C. Rivers scored 19 points as Clemson held on and advanced to the National Invitation Tournament championship with a 68-67 victory over the Falcons Tuesday night.
“All of our guys made big plays down the stretch to hold them off,” coach Oliver Purnell said. “I thought we really showed some mental toughness and the desire to win this thing.”
Trevor Booker added 13 points for Clemson (25-10), which will play West Virginia (26-9) for the championship Thursday night. The Mountaineers beat Mississippi State 63-62 on Darris Nichols’ buzzer-beating 3-pointer in the earlier game.
Clemson, which tied the 1986-87 Tigers for most wins in a season with its fourth straight victory, reached the NIT finals for the second time—and first since losing to California in 1999. After being snubbed for the NCAA tournament, the Tigers are motivated to bring an NIT title home.
“It would mean a lot to me because it would kind of get this bitter taste out of my mouth of everything that’s happened before,” Rivers said.
Nick Welch scored 16 points and Matt McCraw 15 for Air Force (26-9), which had its three-game winning streak stopped after reaching the NIT semifinals for the first time in program history.
“For our seniors, to culminate their career on this floor and in this city is very special,” coach Jeff Bzdelik said. “It hurts that it ended.”
But the Falcons didn’t go away easily. The Tigers had to hang on in this one after leading by as many as 13 early in the second half.
After Booker’s dunk at 16:08 made it 39-26, the Falcons responded with a 25-12 run—capped by consecutive 3-pointers by Tim Anderson and Welch—to tie it at 51 with 6:56 remaining.
“We dug ourselves in a little bit of a hole,” Bzdelik said.
Clemson was able to get the lead back up to 10 at 65-55 on David Potter’s 3-pointer—only his seventh of the season—with 2:12 left.
“He shot the ball with confidence,” Purnell said. “Vernon (Hamilton) was in the lane and he drew the help. Potter, ready to shoot—great footwork— stepped in and knocked it down.”
But Air Force wasn’t finished. After Rivers’ two free throws made it 67-60 with 45 seconds left, McCraw made two foul shots of his own 12 seconds later.
The Tigers had a chance to put the game away, but Hamilton made just one of two free throws with 31.2 seconds remaining, and Rivers missed two with 14.5 seconds left. Clemson finished 7-of-17 from the foul line, but Air Force was just 6-of-14.
Welch made a layup with 4.2 seconds left, and Dan Nwaelele stole the ball from Cliff Hammonds and hit a 3-pointer with 1.2 seconds left to make it 68-67.
“We were just trying to deny the opposing team from going long,” Nwaelele said. “The guy passed the ball and I tried to go get it and I got it. I tried to jump into him to initiate contact, but it wasn’t there and the shot went in.”
The Falcons didn’t have enough time for a final play as Potter took the inbounds pass from Hamilton and dribbled out the clock. The loss ended a spirited run by Air Force, which notched its first postseason victories in 17 years, following a four-game skid that helped keep the Falcons out of the NCAA tournament.
“To go out like we did, yeah, we did lose, but our perseverance and our heart definitely showed on the floor out there,” McCraw said.
The Falcons went on 9-0 run in the first half to cut it Clemson’s lead to 28-22 with 2:05 to go, capped by consecutive 3-pointers by Jacob Burtschi and McCraw. Booker’s layup with 5 seconds left gave Clemson a 30-22 halftime lead.
“I thought we relaxed a little bit at the end of the first half and Air Force took full advantage,” Purnell said. “They are not the kind of team that’s going to go away, and as the game goes on, their style wears on you more and more.”
Clemson shot 52 percent (13-of-25) from the field in the first half, compared to Air Force’s 40 percent (8-of-20). The Tigers also rebounded the Falcons 17-9, and 30-23 for the game.
Welch was forced to leave with 5:57 left in the opening half when he was elbowed in the nose, causing it to bleed profusely. Welch put his hands over his face and bent over before trainers came out to give him a towel to help stop the bleeding, and led him to the locker room.
The game was delayed for about 7 minutes as the area on the court in front of the Falcons’ bench was cleaned up. Burtschi grabbed a broom and McCraw picked up a towel to help with the cleanup efforts, eliciting big cheers from the Air Force fans.
Welch rejoined his teammates on the bench shortly before halftime with gauze in his left nostril, and started the second half for the Falcons.