By William Qualkinbush.
By William Qualkinbush
With around 14 minutes left to play in Tuesday’s 73-56 win over N.C. State, Clemson was in a critical spot.
Trailing at halftime, the Tigers busted out of the gate with an 11-2 spurt to take a 43-35 lead. The Wolfpack got a bucket to cut the lead back to six, so the next possession was crucial in Clemson’s quest to retain momentum.
It was then that K.J. McDaniels showcased the skills that have made him among the nation’s most improved players this season.
Instead of forcing a contested shot—even though no one in the arena would have blamed him if he did—McDaniels kicked the ball out to Jaron Blossomgame, who nailed an open three-pointer from the right wing to stretch the lead out to nine points. Then when fellow stud forward T.J. Warren attacked the basket on the ensuing Wolfpack possession, McDaniels flew in from the backside of the play and rejected the attempt into the stands.
As McDaniels raised his voice to celebrate the block, one thing was sure to the crowd of almost 7,000: Clemson’s star forward was winning the battle.
Much was made against the battle between K.J. and T.J. McDaniels did his part by filling up the stat sheet with his 12 points, four rebounds, two steals, and six blocks.
Warren, on the other hand, disappointed his coach with his play. Even though he scored 20 points to lead N.C. State, his six turnovers were detrimental to the cause.
“I thought today was probably the worst game he’s had in a long time,” Wolfpack coach Mark Gottfried said. “He just never really got going. He did some things he doesn’t normally do.”
While Warren struggled to get going, McDaniels dealt with being the focal point of the opposing gameplan. The Wolfpack mixed up defenses against him, going with a box-and-1 look for much of the game.
The junior forward only attempted six shots, relying on others like Rod Hall—who poured in a career-high 20 points—and Demarcus Harrison to shoulder the load on offense. He enjoyed the head-to-head battle with Warren, who he came to know during the summer.
“T.J. is a gifted guy,” McDaniels said. “I was with him this summer over at the Kevin Durant camp. It was great to see him improve even more.”
The K.J.-T.J. storyline was good fodder for fans and media personalities, but Clemson coach Brad Brownell feels the whole thing was overblown. When he looked upon the Littlejohn Coliseum court, he did not see two elite players going at each other’s throats. He just saw good basketball being played between two good-natured student-athletes.
“I think both of those kids just kind of go about their business and play,” Brownell said. “They’re both really good players. They’re fun guys to watch because there’s really a lot of difference in them even though they’re both terrific.”
McDaniels’ individual victory was secondary to the team accomplishment, which was attained due to the contributions of others. All he cares about is the win, whether he succeeds individually or not.