By Will Vandervort
As he was walking up the stairs following Clemson’s 63-58 loss to 16th-ranked Virginia on Saturday, K.J. McDaniels had one message for his teammates.
“We have to tighten this up,” he said.
With their third straight loss, the Tigers’ chances for making the NCAA Tournament are growing increasingly slim. Clemson more than likely will have to win five of its last six games to have a chance to earn a bid.
ESPN’s Joe Lunardi had the Tigers as one of the last team’s looking in before this week’s heartbreaking losses to Notre Dame and Virginia.
“These last three games have been tough, but we have to learn. We have to keep learning and find a way,” McDaniels said. “That’s what we need to do. We have to find a way to win.”
The last six games will not be easy ones. The Tigers (15-9, 6-6 ACC) host NC State on Tuesday before traveling to Georgia Tech next week and then Wake Forest on Feb. 25. Clemson will close out the regular season with three straight home games against Maryland, Miami and Pittsburgh.
“I feel like we can capitalize on the next six,” McDaniels said. “We have to do what we need to do and get focused in on these last six.”
Someone also needs to help McDaniels score. For the second straight game, McDaniels lit up one of the ACC’s best defenses, following his 30-point performance at Notre Dame with a 24-point effort against Virginia and its top-ranked defense.
No else on the Clemson team scored more than seven points and only two had at least six – Damarcus Harrison’s seven and Austin Ajukwa’s six.
“It is frustrating for all of us,” Clemson head coach Brad Brownell said. “We do a lot of things for K.J. to get him the ball and put him in position to be successful and lucky for us he usually comes through. That’s what you want for a player and he wants that.
“But it is hard. It’s frustrating and challenging when you play hard like that and we have lost two games here where we lost by a possession or two. That’s how close this is from being 6-6, 8-4 or whatever. It is one or two plays every game, especially with our team and our margin for error.”
Rod Hall tried to make a play or two down the stretch, including a fade away as the shot clock was running down with 3:50 to play that pulled Clemson within one, 49-48. Later on Ajukwa drained a three-pointer from the right wing to keep the Tigers close.
But in the end, with the Tigers trailing by three points, Jordan Roper’s three with 12.4 seconds to play was off the mark and Virginia’s Malcolm Brogdon made both free throws to seal the win for the Cavaliers.
“The hard part is to keep fighting and to stay with it, but we will try to regroup and play well Tuesday,” Brownell said.
Clemson was not at full strength against the Cavaliers (21-5, 12-1) on Saturday. Center Landry Nnoko missed the entire game after fighting flu like symptoms on Friday and Saturday. Brownell isn’t sure of his status for Tuesday’s game against NC State.
As for the Virginia game, Nnoko’s absence was noticeable, especially at the rim. The Tigers were outrebounded 13-4 on the offensive glass, while Josh Smith and Sidy Djitte were unable to finish plays in the paint.
In the meantime, Virginia’s Mike Tobey was cleaning up inside as he scored 14 points and had five rebounds. Forward Akil Mitchell had nine rebounds (five offensive), while Borgdon added 14 points and eight boards.
“It’s obvious Landry would have helped us with his size and length – no question,” Brownell said. “But I don’t like talking about those things too much because it takes away from the players on our team that did play. Those guys fought today and they did some good things for us.
“Josh and Sidy competed hard and we were in position to win the game without Landry, but we just were not good enough to get it done.”
Clemson definitely was not good enough to get it done on defense. The Cavaliers scored on eight of their last nine possessions after they tied the game at 43-43 with 8:17 to play. Tobey, Brogdon and Joe Harris made baskets and free throws down the stretch to get Virginia over the top.
This all came after the Cavaliers started the second half 3 of 19 from the field.
“You know Virginia is too good of an offensive team with too many good players to keep shooting that bad,” Brownell said. “Our defense had something to do with it and they missed some shots. But at the same time this a very talented team we were playing and I thought we were playing pretty well.
“I think some of it speaks to how good a team Virginia is.”
And they have a few more playmakers to make plays.