OMAHA, Neb. — All season long, Clemson’s mantra has been “Clemson Grit,” never giving up and having passion and perseverance to overcome anything to achieve a long term goal.
Clemson’s goal this week, when it came to Omaha for the NCAA’s Midwest Regional Semifinals, was to cut down the nets on Sunday afternoon at CenturyLink Center. And though the Tigers will not achieve that goal, it did not mean they had to stop fighting for it.
Right up until the end of their 80-76 loss to top-seed Kansas on Friday, the No. 5 seed Tigers did not quiet. Gabe DeVoe, who scored a career-high 31 points in his final game as a Clemson Tiger, got an offensive rebound and put it in the hoop with four seconds to play.
It was a perfect example of his team’s fight.
“We did not quit,” Clemson guard Shelton Mitchell said afterward. “I think at one point we were down twenty (points) with ten minutes to go, and we did not quit. We cut it to eight. We were still fighting to the end. Even on that last play, Gabe getting an offensive rebound and hitting a layup, that was just grit.”
Clemson (25-10) trailed by 20 points twice in the second half, including 62-42 with 12:01 to play following a Silvio De Sousa jumper for Kansas. Slowly, but surely, the Tigers began to rally.
“That is when a lot of guys realized it was time to wake up,” forward Aamir Simms said. “You never want to be in that situation, but when you are in that situation that is when you really have to lock in on defense. We tried our best and we found ways to get to the free throw line and made shots.
“When times like that happen, that is when you have to get your team together and start making a rally so you can be within five (points) or so. You are right there when the game comes to the end.”
The Tigers trailed Kansas 40-27 at halftime, and it was not even that close. Clemson turned the ball over eight times, was just 2-for-7 from behind the arc and gave up eight offensive rebounds to the Jayhawks and center Udoka Azubuike.
“At halftime, Coach (Brad Brownell) really talked to us about Clemson Grit,” Simms said. “This is the first time I think in the season when we were on the other side and we were down by 20 and we had to make that big push.
“He talked to us all season long and always preached to us about Clemson Grit. He really wanted us to show what it meant to us. We tried our best, but unfortunately it did not fall in our favor.”
But Clemson’s grit and determination still showed. The Tigers went on an 11-2 in a two-minute and 17 second span to cut the Jayhawks’ lead to six points, 74-68, with 2:27 to play.
The rally started with a Simms’ layup and ended when Mitchell first completed a three-point play and then stole the basketball seconds later and took it inside and dunked it home with authority. The Tigers had an opportunity to cut into the lead even more after getting a rebound on the defensive end, but Mitchell’s three was short and Kansas eventually built its lead back to nine points.
“We’re never going to quit,” Mitchell said. “We’ve been in that situation multiple times this year. Sometimes we came back and won. Today we needed to make a couple of more plays, and it just didn’t happen.”
Friday was another lesson from a season that was full of lessons for the 2017-’18 Clemson Tigers.
“There is so much that I learned,” senior Donte Grantham said. “To be honest, it is grit … passion and perseverance towards a long-term goal. When I first got here, we really were not a good team, but every year we kept battling the mountain and I kept battling the mountain myself.
“I tried to get better and get better and sometimes I would take two steps back. But I continued to stay at it and believed in my team. This was my last year, we finally got it together, and like I said, just having grit, it is the most important thing that I think I learned.”