CLEMSON - They came for the bargain-priced tickets and general admission. They stayed for the ongoing resurgence, K.J. McDaniels' standard heroics and Rod Hall's show-stopping finish.
NEW YORK OR BUST
What: National Invitation Tournament quarterfinals
Who: No. 5 seed Belmont (26-9) at No. 3 Clemson (22-12)
When: Tuesday, 7 p.m.
Where: Littlejohn Coliseum, Clemson, S.C.
Tickets: Available online on ClemsonTigers.com, or by calling 1-800-CLEMSON and at the ticket office Monday. Clemson University is urging fans to utilize the print-at-home option to limit lines at ticket and will call windows Tuesday.
Clemson basketball is cool again. How else to explain the capacity crowd, Clemson's first in over two years, flocking to Littlejohn Coliseum for an 11 a.m. Sunday tipoff on somewhat short notice, to watch a second-round game in a lightly regarded postseason tournament?
The Tigers rewarded their fans, both the curious and the diehards, with a hard-earned 50-49 triumph over visiting Illinois in a weekend matinee.
Clemson led by nine in the first half, and never trailed until Jon Ekey's 3-pointer with 2:05 remaining. But Hall's layup with 9.3 seconds remaining served as the game-winner, as the Tigers beat the Illini (20-15) to improve to 15-3 at home.
"I feel like we were just playing our game, the game we always play in Littlejohn," McDaniels said. "We try to protect home court and we did a good job of that today."
As a result, third-seeded Clemson (22-12) will host No. 5 seed Belmont (26-9) on Tuesday night, and the victor is bound for New York City for the NIT semifinals April 1.
Used to playing in gritty games (6-5 since Feb. 1 with margins of five or fewer points), Cardiac Clemson needed to make two plays in the clutch that were reminiscent of prior games that didn't fall its way.
Driving the ball in transition after a stop, Hall took it right to the rack with his team trailing by one, just as the point guard did in the ACC quarterfinals against Duke. Whereas no foul was called amid contact with two Blue Devils, Hall was more assertive against the Illini and sank the go-ahead layup with 9.3 ticks left on the clock.
"I just was going to do better trying to get the ball to the basket," Hall said. "Even though the call didn't go the way I wanted it in that (Duke) game, I kind of put that out of my memory and focused on what I was doing."
Illinois guard Tracy Abrams badly misfired on an off-balance 3-point attempt, giving Clemson possession with the one-point edge and having to inbound the ball with 1.7 seconds remaining.
In Clemson's ACC regular season finale at home against Pittsburgh, guard Damarcus Harrison failed to deliver the inbounds pass to McDaniels, which was stolen and scored by Pitt to tie it up en route to the Panthers' overtime victory.
"As athletic as K.J. and Rod are, they're not great cutters," Clemson coach Brad Brownell said.
"They're actually strong guys; K.J.'s a jumper more than a runner. So it is hard for us sometimes to get open."
Instead of forcing a tight pass as he did against the Panthers, Harrison lobbed it down the court toward center Landry Nnoko. The ball bounced on the floor and over the heads of Nnoko and an Illini player.
"The dude had Nnoko in a headlock down there," Hall said. "He couldn't get the ball, so I had to get my hand on the ball and get the clock going."
Indeed, Hall scrambled to save the ball before it went out of bounds - which would have given Illinois an inbounds pass with a chance for a game-winning shot - and time expired before anybody could grab the handle.
"Phenomenal play," Brownell commended. "A heads-up play that guys just make because they're basketball players, and Rod made a great play out of a difficult situation."
McDaniels has been a season-long highlight, and he may have saved his best for his second-to-last home game of the year (and perhaps his Clemson career, should he defect to the NBA).
After Illinois produced a 7-0 run to even the score at 35 with under 10 minutes to play, Harrison spied McDaniels streaking down the court. Standing behind the half-court line, about 60 feet from the hoop, Harrison tossed it up.
Sixty feet later, McDaniels caught and slammed, rendering 10,000 seats unused as the building popped off.
McDaniels finished with a team-leading 12 points (including four dunks), five rebounds and four blocks. Nnoko contributed 11 points, eight boards and three blocks, while guard Jordan Roper scored 10 first-half points starting in place of injured forward Jaron Blossomgame (leg).
Illinois guard Rayvonte Rice led all players with 15 points, but the Illini missed 18 of 21 3-point tries.
It's been an arduous process for Brownell and the Clemson basketball regime, but fans are starting to pick their spots in getting up and going back to Littlejohn.
Consistency isn't there yet; in Clemson's first-round NIT game Tuesday vs. Georgia State, the upper bowl was empty and the listed attendance was 3,859.
On Sunday? The public address announcer repeatedly begged fans to shift to the inside of their rows, like buckling up for a theme park roller coaster. The announced attendance: 10,000, though the true head count had to be larger for the arena's first standing-room-only crowd since Feb. 14, 2012 against Virginia.
"Really special to come out to Littlejohn today and see 10,000 folks. Appreciate them going to church early and spending the day with us," Brownell said. "When I got here at 9:30, there was a line all the way out to the street, and I had goosebumps on my neck because I was excited to see that kind of support for our program."
Fans get one more chance Tuesday night, after which the Tigers either go home or go to the Big Apple.