Defense rests for Clemson
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — After a David Weaver dunk early in the second half continued an evening of easy, non-contested Wake Forest field goals, Clemson coach Oliver Purnell wheeled around in disgust, grabbed a towel and whipped it down behind the Clemson bench.
It was as about as demonstrative as you'll see Purnell. No. 10 Wake Forest owned the paint. Purnell's sideline sermons inside Joel Coliseum on Sunday weren't taking hold.
Later in the half, Purnell's frustration became less animated, more of someone resigned to an outcome. This was especially true when James Johnson grabbed a long rebound off his own errant 3 and wove through the lane for continued separation from No. 18 Clemson.
Not that that the 96-88 Clemson loss mattered in regard to ACC Tournament seeding.
Since Florida State defeated Virginia Tech on Sunday, Clemson was locked in as the No. 5 seed, win or lose against Wake. The Tigers meet No. 12 seed Georgia Tech in the first round of the ACC Tournament at 2:30 p.m. Thursday in Atlanta.
But with the loss, the Tigers failed to build momentum going into the postseason, and Clemson is running out of time to make fixes.
Super-sized Wake Forest (24-5, 11-5 ACC) scored 58 points in the paint, and shot 59.6 percent for the game. Hardly the formula for a Clemson victory.
The Tigers (23-7, 9-7) cannot continue to have such breakdowns in transition defense, or have an absent interior defense going forward.
"We didn't defend them well enough and they basically shot 70 percent in the second half,'' Purnell said. "Let me say it again, we just didn't defend them well enough. Anytime you let a team shoot 70 percent and you send to the line that many times (30 free throw attempts), you're not going to be very happy with your defense.''
Raymond Sykes (0 points, 0 blocks, four turnovers) and Jerai Grant were often nowhere to be found in defending the paint and combined for seven rebounds.
Clemson was out-rebounded 38 to 26 for the game.
Wake 6-9 freshman Al-Farouq Aminu scored 21 points on 7 of 10 shooting. Wake 6-9 sophomore James Johnson matched his 21 points on slightly better shooting: 10 of 14. And Wake's third projected first-round NBA pick, Jeff Teague, wasn't much worse scoring 15 points on 5 of 7 shooting.
"We've got to get back to that defensive grind,'' said Clemson guard K.C. Rivers who tied for a game best with 21 points, "get back to our old selves. We got a little lackadaisical.''
The Tigers have often been lackadaisical to begin games this season.
On Sunday Clemson struggled to roll over intensity into the second half Sunday.
Purnell attributed the issue partly to "poor point guard play'' to close the first half: i.e. Demontez Stitt miscues.
Clemson could have held an eight- or 10-point lead going into the break. But on an inbounds pass under Clemson's own goal, Stitt ended up throwing an accurate outlet pass to Wake's Ishmael Smith to make it 44-38 Clemson with 51 seconds until half.
Clemson then had an opportunity to take the final shot of the half. But Stitt shot too early, and his miss was quickly rebounded by Wake and dished out to Aminu who dunked with two seconds remaining, closing the gap to 44-40.
Stitt was accountable afterwards.
The miscues overshadowed what had been one of his best offensive games of the season, scoring 21 points on 8 of 14 shooting. Stitt aggressively attacked the entire game — 14 points in the paint — and was a viable third scoring option for Clemson.
However, Clemson forward Trevor Booker, who finished with 18 points and 10 rebounds, said the final possessions of the first half carried over to the second.
"Our intensity let up,'' Booker said. "In the second half we were kind of flat. I think that might have been the difference in the game.''
An ebbing and flowing intensity that could end up as the difference in the season.