CLEMSON, S.C. (AP)—Gardner-Webb coach Rick Scruggs gave Clemson high praise.
He said No. 24 Clemson is the best team he’s seen this season after the Tigers’ 96-67 victory Saturday over his Bulldogs, who have already beaten Kentucky and lost to Oklahoma and Connecticut.
“We’ve already played a pretty tough schedule,” Scruggs said. “Clemson has been by far the best team we’ve played, the reason being they can score it.”
With Gardner-Webb sagging inside early to stop the post players, the Tigers (5-0) turned to guards Cliff Hammonds, who led Clemson with 16 points and made five of seven 3-pointers, and freshman reserve Terrence Oglesby, who had 15 points on 3-of-4 shooting from behind the arc.
And when Gardner-Webb (4-4) started to guard the perimeter, forwards James Mays and Trevor Booker stepped up. Booker has 15 points and seven rebounds, while Mays added 13 points and nine rebounds despite spraining his hip on a hard foul in the second half.
Clemson trailed just once at 3-2 and gave the Bulldogs their worst defeat this season. The Tigers shot 50.7 percent (34-67) from the field for the game and 57.9 percent (11-of-19) on 3-pointers.
“It really helps when you shoot the ball well,” Clemson coach Oliver Purnell said.
Scruggs expects the Tigers to make some noise in the ACC.
“A lot of time real athletic teams don’t shoot the ball real well and you can take advantage of them in other ways,” he said. “But the way they shot it today, they’re going to be a hard out for anybody.”
Purnell’s had looked lethargic in a 74-57 win over Presbyterian three days ago.
So before they took the court, Purnell reminded his players of their last game: “We play this way this afternoon, we lose.”
The Running Bulldogs stuck to their nickname and kept it close the first nine minutes, pressing the ball up the floor and keeping Clemson off balance.
But Booker then found Mays for an alley-oop reverse dunk that brought the sparse crowd to its feet. The Tigers scored on eight of their next 10 possessions, including two 3-pointers by Hammonds to take a 40-27 lead with five minutes left in the half.
The intensity was there on both ends. The Tigers had 11 steals and outrebounded Gardner-Webb 51-34. Jerai Grant had eight offensive rebounds for Clemson—more than half of Gardner-Webb’s total for the entire game.
Nate Blank led the Bulldogs with 16 points, and Thomas Sanders added 15 points and six rebounds.
For Clemson, it was just another out-of-conference November win. The Tigers have won 18 in a row in the first month of the season and are 22-1 in November since Purnell became coach five seasons ago.
Clemson hasn’t been able to sustain that success to the rest of the season. The Tigers haven’t been to the NCAA tournament since 1998 and watched a 17-0 start last season crash into a 8-11 finish, bolstered by four wins in a run to the NIT final.
“Hopefully, this season, we can keep things on track until the end,” said K.C. Rivers, who had 13 points and was 3-of-6 on 3-pointers.
Clemson has a couple of days to rest before hosting Purdue on Tuesday night in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge. Clemson is 6-2 in the tournament, and only Duke and Wake Forest have better records as the event enters its ninth year.
Saturday’s game ends a whirlwind for Gardner-Webb, which had to cram a trip to New York and more media attention than the team had even seen in an already busy schedule after beating Kentucky in Rupp Arena in the 2K Sports College Hoops Challenge,
The Bulldogs had four days of rest before playing Clemson, but prior to that had a stretch of five games in seven days, including games on back-to-back nights that required travel and little sleep.
“I’m not sure what a normal life would feel like right now with all the jetting around and all publicity we’ve gotten,” Scruggs said. “It’s been great. I wouldn’t trade it for the world, beating Kentucky in Rupp and going to New York and playing in Madison Square Garden. Our kids have gotten to do some fantastic things and they’ve played real well.”