Mike Scott ices the game from the line. He posted game highs in points (23) and rebounds (10).
Ever since Brad Brownell arrived at Clemson almost two years ago, it has looked like a completely different basketball team. Brownell has turned the Tigers from a fullcourt fast-pace team into a patient and more organized halfcourt ball club. Clemson forced 16 turnovers in its victory over Wake Forest on Saturday, and came into Tuesday night’s contest with Virginia ranked second in the ACC in points allowed.
“Both of us grew up in the Midwest and we have similar influences,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “We believe in guarding in the halfcourt as tough as you can and try to get good shots on the other end through screening, ball rotation, and getting the right guys the shots.”
Brownell and the Tigers pushed 16th-ranked Virginia to the limit before the Cavaliers ultimately prevailed 65-61 in the 100th game in John Paul Jones Arena.
Virginia (18-3) shot more than 50 percent in the first half and outrebounded the Tigers 15-11 but still somehow trailed by four at the break. The Tigers continued to lead by five early in the second half before Joe Harris ignited the Cavalier offense. A 3-pointer by Harris sparked a 19-3 Virginia run and the Cavaliers built an 11-point lead with just more than 12 minutes remaining.
“I think that shot got the ball rolling and helped us momentum wise,” Harris said. “The crowd was really getting into it and it kind of went off from there.”
The Tigers clawed their way back into the game, though. Clemson trailed 61-58 with 20 seconds remaining. Brownell drew up an excellent inbounds play and Andre Young was wide open at the top of the key with a chance to tie the game. Fortunately for Virginia, Young’s attempt fell just short and Mike Scott went 4-4 from the foul line down the stretch to ice the game for the Cavaliers.
“That made a difference,” Bennett said. “Probably the greatest joy as a coach is to see a player mature on the floor, which [Mike] has, but what I see from him off the court is in terms of leadership and the way he’s reached out and to care for his teammates. It’s really become a priority for him. Even when we’ve had a few bumps in the road, he’s been there.”
In addition to those late free throws, it was business as usual for Scott. The senior led Virginia with 23 points, the 19th time this season he has reached double figures. Like every UVa opponent, the Tigers often doubled and even tripled Scott at times. It did not seem to matter, however, as Scott was unstoppable. He shot 8 of 11 from the field and 7 of 8 from the foul line. Scott also hauled in 10 rebounds to record his sixth double-double of the season. He now has 30 career double-doubles, which ranks third all-time at Virginia. And just for good measure, Scott tied his career-high with 3 blocked shots.
Virginia’s Joe Harris recorded 19 points in the win.
“A lot of teams are starting to respect me,” Scott said. “I just take it upon myself to be poised and hit the open man. I’m just trying to keep getting better. I’m not worried about being the ACC Player of the Year. I’m just trying to lead my team to wins.”
Scott drawing most of the attention from the Clemson defense opened the door for Harris to have a big night as well. Including the run-sparking triple mentioned above, Harris went 5-6 from downtown and tied his season high with 19 points. The five treys match Harris’ career high.
“You can’t ever really expect games like these,” Harris said. “Sometimes the ball goes in and sometimes it doesn’t. I just keep shooting if I’m open whether I’m making them or missing them.”
Added Bennett, “I thought Joe and Mike were terrific tonight. We needed it. We were better offensively in the second half and not so great in the first half, but some of the plays that Joe and Mike made were timely.”
With Assane Sene out of the lineup and Virginia being thin in the front-court, it will be up to Akil Mitchell to rise to the occasion for the remainder of the season and he answered the bell on Tuesday. Mitchell started his fourth straight game and played for a season-high 35 minutes. The sophomore scored eight points and collected seven rebounds. With a few games under his belt with his increased responsibility, Mitchell appears to be more comfortable on the court, and has embraced his new role on the team.
“I feel I’m a lot more comfortable with where I am now than when I was coming off the bench,” Mitchell said. “I understand my team needs me to play more and I just got to step it up and show what I can do.”
After being outrebounded 42-25 in Saturday’s win over NC State, Virginia responded by holding a 34-19 advantage on the glass against Clemson. The Cavaliers allowed the Wolfpack to grab 16 offensive boards on Saturday, but only surrendered six against the Tigers. Clemson was without the services of 6’9″ Milton Jennings and Bennett was pleased with how his team owned the glass on Tuesday night.
“Without Jennings they didn’t go to the glass as hard as NC State, but we were better,” Bennett said. “Early we had a couple of loose ones that we didn’t get, but our guys rebounded hard and came up with some big defensive rebounds late in the game when we needed it. The numbers obviously look better than they did last game.”
The matchup to watch going into the game was Andre Young against Virginia’s backcourt. Young came into Tuesday’s contest averaging 13.9 points per game. The Tigers were 3-0 in ACC play when Young shot 40 percent or better, but 0-3 when he failed to reach 40 percent. After scoring seven points in the first half, the combination of Jontel Evans and Sammy Zeglinski held Young scoreless in the second half and to just 25 percent from the field all night.
“He’s a great player, strong, physical, and can really shoot the lights out,” Evans said. “I just wanted to try to pressure him and get him out of his comfort zone. I felt like I did a pretty good job on him. He didn’t hit his average.”
The Cavaliers have been living on the edge so far during ACC play. Five of Virginia’s seven ACC contests have been decided by four points or less, including two one-point victories. UVa lost several close ACC games in 2011. Now that the team is a year older and a year wiser, the Hoos have showed that they can handle the pressure and stand tall in the face of adversity.
“Last year we lost a lot of close games down the stretch,” Evans said. “This year, I feel like we have more experience and we’re more mature and we know what to expect. We know how to be under control down the stretch in games. You just have to stay confident, stay poised, and come out with the win.”
It does not get any easier for Virginia as the Cavaliers will travel to Tallahassee on Saturday for a showdown with 24th ranked Florida State on Saturday. The Donald L Tucker Center has been a house of horrors for Virginia as the Cavaliers have not won in Tallahassee since 2001. The Seminoles already boast wins over Duke and North Carolina and are currently riding an ACC best five-game winning streak. A victory on Saturday could go a long way in the conference race and further cement Virginia as one of the ACC’s elite.
“They’re athletic. They’re long. They’ve got some good shooters and they’re very good defensively,” Scott said. “It’s definitely going to be a battle. We’re two defensive teams, so that’s what it’s going to come down to, who’s going to outlast the other.”