When Clemson came from behind to defeat Wake Forest in Winston-Salem to close out the 2016 portion of its schedule, it was a monumental victory. The Tigers didn’t lose in December. They seamlessly transitioned from one of the nation’s best nonconference bodies of work into a difficult ACC slate by doing what they had done all year: winning, whatever it took.
Fast forward six weeks, to Tuesday night. Clemson’s season has taken a decidedly different turn. The NCAA Tournament résumé under construction has stalled in the wake of a handful of razor-thin defeats, each loss doing a little more damage than the previous one. This victory over the Demon Deacons—a 95-83 Valentine’s Day win in front of a sparse Littlejohn Coliseum crowd—meant something very different.
It meant rebounding from a pair of crushing losses during the previous seven days. Those losses came by a combined three points. On both occasions, the final possession of the contest went against the Tigers. Conventional wisdom suggested that Clemson might be reaching its tipping point for heartbreak in 2017.
Then the Tigers came out against an offensive juggernaut averaging more than 80 points per game in the best league in America and played possibly their best collective half of the new year. They shot a season-high 59.3 percent from the floor in the opening 20 minutes while holding Wake Forest to just under 42 percent. The 12-point lead Clemson took into the locker room was its largest against a conference foe.
Wake Forest valiantly answered, cutting Clemson’s lead from as many as 21 points down to six with under two minutes to play. Its two leading scorers—John Collins and Bryant Crawford—combined for 54 points on 32 shot attempts. No other Deac reached double figures, though, while the Tigers employed a balanced attack featuring four double-digit scorers.
One of them was Jaron Blossomgame. The senior forward had an impossibly quiet second half at Duke in a two-point loss, playing 20 minutes and only accounting for two points and no rebounds down the stretch. On Tuesday, he had his third double-double of the season—his first since the South Carolina game before Christmas—with 17 points and 10 rebounds.
Marcquise Reed led Clemson with 21 points on just 5-of-10 shooting by knocking down all but one of his ten free throws. Shelton Mitchell and Avry Holmes each poured in 15 for the Tigers, who made 27-of-35 foul shots for the game—an impressive 77.1 percent clip.
Each of those players could have moped, whined, or pouted. After all, they lost two one-possession games a week ago. It was an extension of a month-long struggle to finish tightly-contested, down-to-the-wire matchups inside a league as unforgiving as any in basketball history.
Yet, when Wake Forest cut the Tigers’ lead to six with under two minutes left, Clemson forgot about its inbounding issues late in previous games. It forgot about free throw woes that have cost it against similarly skilled opponents. It forgot about late-game heroics that twisted the knife already firmly planted into the collective heart of the team again and again.
Instead, Clemson just won. It made free throws. It got a few stops. It managed issues with foul trouble inside, even getting 13 minutes from lightly used Legend Robertin. It dealt with an opponent adept at scoring by taking and making good shots at critical moments.
Then, in the aftermath, it didn’t sound like a team with an identity rooted in its 4-9 conference record. It didn’t sound like a team hitting the panic button, or accepting its fate, or drowning in the sorrow of an abundance of uber-close losses.
Clemson sounded like a team with five games left on the regular season schedule, all of which it feels sure it could win. It was a strange sense of calm in the midst of a storm that probably isn’t as strong as fan sentiment would suggest. It was a similar feeling to the optimism that permeated the program that Saturday afternoon in Winston-Salem.