CLEMSON — Every time his team was in trouble, Clemson junior K.J. McDaniels had the answer on both ends of the floor.
Whether it was throwing down a ferocious dunk or shoving away shots in the paint, the uber-athletic McDaniels was brilliant in host Clemson’s 71-57 triumph over rival South Carolina on Sunday, delighting 7,238 fans at Littlejohn Coliseum. It was the Tigers’ second straight series win and eighth in the last 10 meetings.
“K.J. was terrific and the best player on the floor,” Clemson head coach Brad Brownell said. “It’s time in his career to be a high-level player and he performed at a high level tonight.”
McDaniels re-established his career high with 21 points on 7 of 12 field-goal tries, including four dunks. The Tigers’ opener against Stetson on Nov. 8 was his first 20-point performance.
His presence wasn’t limited to highlight-worthy offensive plays. Paired with 10 rebounds, McDaniels produced his first career double-double, and his seven blocks gave him 12 in the last two games.
“He always makes the highlight plays with the blocks and dunks,” Brownell said. “His skill level has improved tremendously with his shooting, his ability to drive it and attack some close-outs. Those weren’t really things he came here with the ability to do.”
Fellow junior Rod Hall has scored in double figures twice in the first three games after chipping in 14 points against the Gamecocks. He had done so just four times in his 62 games (39 starts) over the previous two years.
Sophomore guard Jordan Roper, normally a starter, came off the bench with 15 points for Clemson (3-0).
Roper and Hall combined to make 16 of 17 free throws; the Tigers overall were 24 for 26, a program record in games where they had at least 25 attempts.
The Gamecocks (1-2), coming off a two-point loss at No. 23 Baylor, were led by 13 points and 12 rebounds by Mindaugas Kacinas. South Carolina was 1 for 10 from 3-point range and 10 of 18 from the line.
After spending plenty of time trailing by a few possessions, South Carolina used seven straight points to draw within 40-39 with just under 13 minutes to go. But Hall set up McDaniels for an alley-oop, sparking the game-defining run.
McDaniels followed by stuffing Kacinas for his fifth block, allowing Hall to go the other way for a driving layup while getting fouled. A free throw put Clemson up 45-39.
McDaniels followed with another 3-point play, and then slammed home his fourth dunk of the evening on an alley-oop from Roper. That gave McDaniels seven points during a 10-1 run to quickly extend the Tigers’ lead back to double digits.
Just for good measure, with under four minutes to go and an 11-point lead, McDaniels fell backwards while making his seventh swat, and the ball ended up with Roper, who went coast-to-coast for the dunk and an exclamation point.
On three different occasions Sunday, McDaniels had a blocked shot on the USC possession immediately following his own basket.
South Carolina couldn’t capitalize on 21 offensive rebounds, only garnering 15 second-chance points and shooting 35 percent from the floor.
“In life, you get what you deserve, and tonight we got what we deserved,” USC head coach Frank Martin said. “We’ve got young guys that got a little too casual, they were jogging through their cuts … it’s not like they’re not trying. We got 21 offensive rebounds tonight; you don’t do that unless your guys are actually trying. We’ve just got to learn. We got exposed today on offense and defense.”
This sequence late in the first half summed up the Gamecocks’ offensive troubles: Tyrone Johnson hauled in a defensive rebound with 4 minutes, 55 seconds left on the game clock. In the next 27 seconds, all five Gamecocks on the floor tried and missed a shot, but South Carolina kept grabbing the offensive board and putting it back up.
Finally, Kacinas was fouled on the sixth shot attempt by McDaniels, granting him a one-and-one bonus opportunity. And Kacinas missed the free throw.
South Carolina went 6:39 without scoring, going 0 for 13 from the floor before Thornwell’s 3-pointer; but Clemson only picked up seven points itself during the drought.
However, McDaniels tallied seven points, five rebounds, two putback dunks and two blocks during a 24-13 lead to open the game. The Tigers controlled the early tempo with a 15-5 run, getting triples from McDaniels, Roper and Adonis Filer.
Hall and Roper each had four assists.
Clemson gets back in action Thursday at 8 p.m. against Temple (1-2) in the first round of the Charleston Classic. South Carolina gets a week off before returning home against Florida International (4-2).