By William Qualkinbush.
By William Qualkinbush.
CLEMSON – Late in the game in the ACC Tournament against Duke nine days ago, Clemson guard Rod Hall drove the lane to put the Tigers up by a point. It ended up a loss when he lost the ball through contact at the buzzer.
Early Sunday afternoon against Illinois, Hall gave a capacity-plus crowd a bit of déjà vu, driving and finishing at the rim to put the Tigers up by a point in the second round of the National Invitation Tournament.
This time, Hall made the play to seal it.
“I just kind of put that out of my memory,” he said of the Duke defeat. “I focused on what I was doing.”
The Clemson junior saved an untouched inbounds pass from going out-of-bounds on the other end of the floor with under two seconds left. The clock ran out and the Tigers escaped with a 50-49 victory over the Fighting Illini that pushes them one game away from a trip to Madison Square Garden.
“It’s a heads-up play that guys just make because they’re basketball players,” Head Coach Brad Brownell said. “Certainly, Rod just made a great play out of a difficult situation.”
A loss would have been a disappointing end to the season for a Clemson team that has become begrudgingly accustomed to crushing losses. Instead, Clemson flipped the script in front of one of its best crowds of the season.
The fans were happy early, as the Tigers jumped on the Illini early and raced out to an 11-4 lead in the game’s first five minutes. Clemson led by nine at 28-19 at the break thanks to a major contribution from guard Jordan Roper.
The sophomore led all first-half scorers with 10 points on 3-4 shooting. His perimeter touch was welcome in a half in which Hall and K.J. McDaniels struggled to get going.
Illinois found its stroke after halftime. The Fighting Illini, who often rely on the three-pointer to score, missed their first 11 attempts from downtown before Jon Ekey banged one home with 14:04 remaining in the game. That shot ignited a 12-3 run that tied the game at 35 at the halfway point in the second half.
Clemson maintained a small lead thanks to the emergence of McDaniels after the half. His contributions included a slam on a long alley-oop from beyond the half-court line from Damarcus Harrison that few people in the building saw coming.
“I wasn’t sure if he was going to throw it,” McDaniels said. “But when he did, I was ready for it.”
McDaniels finished with a team-high 12 points, including two free throws with 3:09 remaining that gave the Tigers a 48-46 advantage with three minutes to play. But an Ekey three-pointer from the wing put the Illini on top for the first time at 49-48 with 2:05 to go.
The teams traded missed shots until Rayvonte Rice—Illinois’ leading scorer with 15 points—missed a lay-up that would have made it a three-point game. Landry Nnoko, who had 11 point and 8 rebounds in the game, grabbed the board and threw an outlet pass to Hall, who banked home the eventual game-winner.
Even though his team had a foul to give as Illinois inbounded the ball with just a few seconds on the clock, Brownell elected not to foul in a clock-killing effort. Instead, the Tigers sank into the zone and forced a long airball three by Tracy Abrams with under two seconds to play.
“Everybody thinks you’re a great coach if you foul,” Brownell said with a grin. “That’s like the great, masterful thing.”
“We knew they had one to give,” Illinois Head Coach John Groce said. “We thought they might. But we were prepared either way with what we drew up, had we executed it like we needed to.”
Harrison threw a long inbounds pass on the final play in Nnoko’s direction, but the ball hit the floor and bounced wide of the Clemson center. Hall, seeing the ball heading toward the baseline, wisely leaped and threw the ball back into play. Not only did he prevent a potential inbounds play for Illinois back on its offensive end of the court, he left no time for Illinois to grab and heave the ball back down toward the other end.
The Tigers will now have a quick turnaround with only one day to prepare for their third-round opponent Belmont. The game will be in Clemson at 7 p.m. on Tuesday.