By Will Vandervort.
By Will Vandervort
COLUMBIA — Before their 64-55 victory over South Carolina Sunday at the Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, Clemson players had a long, hard talk about the way things have gone for Clemson University in the South Carolina rivalry.
The basketball program itself had lost the previous two years, while the baseball program lost four of the last five to the Gamecocks to close the 2012 season, including two in the NCAA Regional. Then there is the football rivalry.
South Carolina has beaten the Tigers four consecutive times on the gridiron for the first time since 1951-’54, and in three of those years, the game was not even close.
“We had an opportunity to change things,” guard Rod Hall said afterwards. “We are the first ones to beat them. Football had a chance, but they kind of blew it. It was kind of a good change for the school.”
The Tigers (5-2) made the change, at least on the basketball court, thanks to a 15-4 run midway through the second half. Clemson did that with a much smaller lineup, too, after K.J. McDaniels sat down with three fouls.
“Our bench is very deep and we have a lot of people that can help us out,” said McDaniels, who scored a game-high 16 points. “I was already in foul trouble, but I knew they would come off the bench and help us out.”
Clemson helped him out by pushing tempo. Hall, along with freshmen Adonis Filer and Jordan Roper, took USC misses and immediately went into attack mode, leading to easy buckets in transition. Devin Booker benefited the most in the run, scoring six straight points.
Booker’s two free throws with 9:08 to play gave the Tigers a 49-37 lead. South Carolina got within four points late, but the Tigers sealed the victory by connecting on 21 of 26 free throws in the second half.
“I’m really proud of my team,” Clemson head coach Brad Brownell said. “We had some adversity this week and they showed a lot of toughness and grit in finding a way to win. I thought we had a very good stretch in the first half and played really well, and then South Carolina made a nice run before the half.
“We gathered ourselves and played really well in the second half. We made big free throws down the stretch and got good stops and won an important game.”
Besides McDaniels’ 16 points, Booker scored 13 points and had eight rebounds, while Hall dropped in 15 points and made a career high nine free throws on 12 attempts.
“We talked about who was going to be the toughest and who was going to make the big plays,” Hall said. “I just kind of had to out tough (Bruce Ellington) even though he is a tough guard. I did what I had to do.”
Ellington, who also plays football for USC, had 12 points on 4 of 9 shooting, but Hall forced him to commit five turnovers. South Carolina had 19 overall. Hall said he tried to match Ellington’s football mentality in those key moments down the stretch.
“I used to play football too, so I kind of know how to make contact,” Hall said.
Ellington’s basket with 4:06 to play pulled the Gamecocks within four points, 51-47, but BYU transfer Damarcus Harrison nailed a three-pointer from the right corner with 3:31 to play to break USC’s back.
“I just shot it with confidence,” the Greenwood, S.C., native said. “I have been struggling lately, but I did some extra shooting before we came up and I shot it with confidence and it went in.
“That was a very important shot for me. My sister graduated from South Carolina, and it took the wind out of their sails. This is a very good win for us so we can turn this rivalry around. Last year, we lost to them, but this year we got a big win.”
And that was just the opportunity they wanted, and unlike the football team, they did not blow it.