By William Qualkinbush.
Rod Hall had seen enough. Ever since a disappointing loss to Rutgers six days earlier, he had heard from his head coach about how much more his teammates needed him to do.
“He’s played fine, but he hasn’t played with a big heart and a big spirit,” Brad Brownell said. “We just talked about it this week.”
Down the stretch of a hard-fought game against 18th-ranked Arkansas, Hall stopped being passive and started to take over. His burst was instrumental in Clemson’s 68-65 overtime win that helped ease some of the lingering pain from a couple of close home losses earlier in the still-young 2014-15 season.
Hall led the Tigers with 19 points—one away from his career high—with 16 of them coming after halftime. He was efficient, knocking down two-thirds of his nine shot attempts and making five of his six free throws. He also contributed in other ways, grabbing four rebounds and four steals while contributing a pair of assists.
But it was his command of the basketball late in a tight game that guided the Tigers to victory.
“I really wanted to win,” the senior point guard said. “My teammates, we’ve been working hard. We’ve had some down times from the games we lost, and we just regrouped and came out and played the best we could.”
The Tigers came out inspired after Brownell and his staff challenged them to play with better effort on the defensive end of the floor. They were able to match the intensity of the Razorbacks, coached by a man in Mike Anderson who spent more than a decade on Nolan Richardson’s staff and employs the “40 Minutes of Hell” approach to defense that Richardson made famous in his heyday.
The Tigers led for most of the first half, stretching the lead out to as many as nine points at 29-20 with just two minutes remaining. Freshman Donte Grantham was the catalyst on offense, pouring in 12 of his 14 points in the first frame.
As has been the case all season, however, Clemson suffered through a significant drought after halftime. During one stretch of seven-plus minutes, the Tigers scored only three points—all from the free throw line.
Meanwhile, Arkansas began to impose its will, outscoring the Tigers 14-1 during one long stretch to build an eight-point lead. Much of the scoring burden for the Razorbacks fell to Michael Qualls, who led all players with 21 points and added six rebounds, and lengthy post presence Bobby Portis, who contributed 18 points and seven rebounds.
With Clemson’s offense stagnant and Arkansas threatening to build a larger lead, Brownell went to a trademark late-game adjustment: a 1-3-1 halfcourt trapping zone that flustered the Razorbacks. The Tigers had a quick four-point burst after going to the zone, and Anderson was forced to burn a timeout to calm his squad.
“It’s the first time we’ve played it all year,” Brownell said. “It did what we needed it to do. It changed tempo and gave the other team a different look and gave us some life.”
Still, the Tigers faced an uphill battle trailing by seven points with under six minutes to play. Then, Damarcus Harrison poured in a critical wing three, then Jaron Blossomgame drove the lane and ignited the crowd with a thunderous dunk as a defender tried to reject him at the rim.
The Razorbacks built the lead back to six points on a pair of Portis layups with 1:17 to play. Then Hall began to take over.
The veteran hit a runner in the lane to trim the lead to four, then he parlayed a steal in the backcourt into another layup that tied the game.
The Razorbacks had the ball with a two-point lead with under 30 seconds left, but Grantham knocked the ball loose and led a last-second fastbreak that resulted in a game-tying alley-oop pass from Harrison to Jaron Blossomgame, who laid the ball in with nine seconds remaining for two of his 17 points. The sophomore also had eight rebounds in the game.
On the first possession of overtime, Hall went to work again. He sized up his defender, backpedaled, then pulled up for a straight-on three that swished through to give the Tigers a three-point lead.
“I was in the zone,” Hall said. “I knew it was going to be a good shot. He backed up off of me, and I just rose up and took a good shot.”
Clemson’s overtime lead stretched out to as many as six, as a Blossomgame dunk and a pair of Hall free throws kept pace with baskets by the Razorbacks. Neither team scored in the final 1:01 of play, as Anderson’s squad failed to capitalize on a backcourt steal and missed a wild three-pointer with only a few seconds on the clock.
Clemson is now 2-0 against Southeastern Conference foes this season and will face SEC opposition in each of its next two games. The next test comes against Auburn on Sunday, December 14, after a week away from the court due to final exams.