It’s fitting on Senior Day, it was Clemson’s seniors that got the Tigers over the top and perhaps into the NCAA Tournament at the same time.
Aliyah Collier and Danielle Edwards, along with graduate transfer Simone Westbrook, keyed a stretch in which the Tigers outscored Virginia Tech 16-4 to gain control of a 73-66 victory Sunday at Littlejohn Coliseum in Clemson.
Coming into the season, Clemson’s seniors, which also consists of Keniece Purvis, had a 4-44 record in ACC play the last three years. Sunday’s win over Virginia Tech clinched the program its first winning record in conference play since the 2001-’02 season.
The win, perhaps, clinched a bid to next month’s NCAA Tournament as well, something a Clemson women’s team has not participated in since the 2001-’02 season.
“We have not been very successful in the past,” Collier said. “So, to come in this game ready to play, I think that helped us a lot in the second half. For us to step up as seniors and as (Amanda Butler) said, the team depends on us, and we have to bring that energy and effort so everybody else can follow along.
“I think that kind of helped us out after we got on a roll in the second half.”
With the Tigers (18-10, 9-6 ACC) down two, 55-53, Collier drove through the lane and drew foul and then completed a three-point play with 4:15 to play to give her team the lead for good. Westbrook then made a layup on a nice cross-court pass from Collier to extend the lead to three. Edwards later followed with a corner three.
“At that point, I was like, ‘finally!’ I think at that point I had already shot two (threes),” Edwards said. “The first one was in and out and the second one was long, so when that one went in, it was just like, ‘thank you!’
“But like Aliyah said, we have the confidence throughout the whole game. You can look at the scoreboard and say that was a big shot, but everything counts and everything leads up to those last few minutes.”
Collier made another jumper in the lane and Westbrook added free throws as Clemson built a 68-59 lead with 38 seconds to play.
After trailing by nine points at the beak, the Tigers outscored Virginia Tech 49-33 in the second half and overcame a 12-point deficit.
Edwards finished the game with 14 points and had nine assists, while Collier and Westbrook each added 11 points in the victory. Collier also had seven rebounds.
“They have just a tremendous and resilient spirit in them,” Butler said about her seniors. “I am just so happy for them to be experiencing what this feels like in February, to be getting big wins against good opponents and to just feel good about themselves because they have worked really hard.
“They have sacrificed a tremendous amount this season and this is what they deserve. It is not surprising at all to see them make those big plays and make those big shots, but it is certainly very gratifying and very fulfilling to be able to experience that with them.”
Before the seniors took over the game on Sunday, it was junior Kobi Thornton who kept the Tigers in it. The center came within two points of equaling her career high as she dropped in 23 points on 11 of 22 shooting. She also had 10 rebounds to complete a double-double.
Thornton’s 11 field goals did tie a career high.
“Going into today, I just felt like I had to do my job, which is rebounding, scoring when I have to,” the junior said. “I also wanted to make sure our seniors go out with a bang on our home court and that is what I did.”
Clemson rallied from 12 points down in the third period to tie the game at 49 when Thornton made a jumper from the left elbow with 1:05 to play in the third.
The Hokies led 51-49 at the end of three periods, but Tigers outscored the Hokies 25-18 in the third frame to get back in the game.
The Tigers trailed 33-24 at the break after Edwards went coast-to-coast on a layup and drew a foul before completing the three-point play to cut the Hokies’ lead to nine at the break.
Kendyl Brooks drained a three-pointer from the left side with 11 seconds to play in the half that gave Virginia Tech a 33-21 lead. That capped a 22-4 run over the final 7:35 of the first half.
Virginia Tech (17-10, 4-10 ACC) connected on 52 percent of their shots in the first two periods, while Clemson struggled, making just 26 percent of its shots.
The Hokies outscored Clemson 25-14 in the second period. Regan Magarity led them with 13 first-half points on 6 of 8 shooting. She finished the game with 17 points.
The Tigers struggles started with 5:42 to play in the first period as they missed their last 14 shots to end the period. They were 5 for 25 in the first 10 minutes and went the last 5:42 without a field goal.
Clemson led by six points twice in the first half. First it had a 10-4 lead with 5:42 to play in the first period and then a 17-11 advantage following a Destiny Thomas’ triple with 7:35 to go in the half.
Edwards, who had five first-half points, broke Clemson’s scoreless streak with two free throws for a 12-11 lead. She later found Thornton with 7:59 to go before halftime for the Tigers first basket in seven minutes and 43 seconds.
The Tigers missed 16 straight shots prior to the Thornton basket.
Virginia Tech used a 15-0 run with 4:05 to play in the second period to build its 12-point lead. Emery Taylor and Kendyl Brooks made back-to-back threes to aid in the run.
Clemson will play at Duke on Thursday to close out the regular season.
–Above photo of junior Kobi Thornton making a first-half shot in the Tigers’ win over Virginia Tech Sunday at Littlejohn Coliseum. Thornton led Clemson with 23 points and 10 rebounds on Senior Day. (photo by Rex Brown)