Clemson’s men’s basketball team has had a longstanding calling card under head coach Brad Brownell.
While the Tigers’ offense has a tendency to come and go, Clemson can usually count on its defense to keep them in games and pull out wins more often than not. But with the Tigers looking to match their longest winning streak of the season Tuesday, they broke down on that end of the floor.
It was an uncharacteristic defensive showing for Clemson (9-5, 1-2 ACC), which faltered down the stretch in a 10-point loss to a Virginia team that’s also known more for defense than offense under its veteran coach, Tony Bennett. Yet the Cavaliers, who came in ranked 315th among Division I teams in scoring, poured in 75 points – 12 more than their season average – and shot a blistering 54.3% from the field to end Clemson’s four-game winning streak.
Granted, it was the Tigers’ first game since beating the same Virginia team on the road on Dec. 22 because of coronavirus-related issues in other programs, but Brownell said that wasn’t the reason his team didn’t perform as well this time around.
“Our defense wasn’t as good as it was up there (in Charlottesville), and they capitalized on it,” Brownell said. “I thought our guys were fine. I didn’t think we were rusty or anything like that from the layoff.”
It was just the sixth time this season a team has scored 70 points against Clemson, which came in yielding less than 65 points per game. The Tigers, who also rank fourth in the ACC in field-goal percentage defense (40.6%), held Virginia to just 50 points and 36% shooting during a 17-point win in the teams’ first matchup, but Clemson had few answers Tuesday for the inside-out combination of Jayden Gardner and Amaan Franklin, who combined for 36 of the Cavaliers’ points.
Gardner did most of the damage. Virginia’s senior forward poured in 23 points on 7 of 11 shooting, all of those buckets coming inside the 3-point line. The Cavaliers outscored Clemson 34-22 in the paint after scoring just 12 points from there in the first meeting.
“They were in the paint way more than we wanted them to be,” Brownell said. “We had a little bit of slippage in a couple of game-plan things that we kept talking about but didn’t do a good enough job with. And I just think Gardner was very good (Tuesday). We doubled him a couple of times, and we didn’t double him some. We tried to mix it up, and I thought he made some good decisions and was very efficient. That was a huge factor.”
Virginia made some effective adjustments to slow down Clemson, which scored nine fewer points than its season average. Senior forward Hunter Tyson said the Cavaliers doubled the post more and often trapped ball screens, forcing the Tigers’ offense to operate farther away from the 3-point line and ultimately the basket.
Still, Clemson shot 46% from the floor and had four players reach double figures led by Tyson’s 15 points. Tyson said it wasn’t the Cavaliers’ defensive adjustments that won them the game, which was tied at 57 with 6 minutes, 51 seconds left. Virginia outscored the Tigers 18-8 the rest of the way, making four of its last eight shots.
“I think it just comes down to us on the defensive end,” Tyson said. “We just couldn’t get stops when we needed to. Credit to their guys. They hit some really big shots.”
Brownell also credited the Cavaliers for some of their shot-making, adding he wasn’t disappointed in how his team played. But Clemson will look to bounce back with a stronger defensive effort Saturday when the Tigers travel to North Carolina State (8-7, 1-3).
“They just played better down the stretch than we did,” Brownell said. “It was a good basketball game.”
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