CLEMSON — Clemson’s best player, Devin Booker, did not produce a single field goal Sunday.
Brad Brownell picked up the first technical foul of his 11-year head coaching career, telling of the Clemson coach’s opinion of the quality of officiating in the game.
Those factors alone did not suggest a Clemson victory was possible, but the Tigers came away with a much-needed 77-70 win over Virginia Tech in unexpected fashion: enjoying efficient outside shooting and a career-best effort from Milton Jennings.
Jennings, a Pinewood Prep product, scored a career-best 28 points, grabbed a career-best 14 rebounds and blocked four shots. He made 16 of 18 free throws.
The 16 free throws were the most made by any Clemson player since the late Butch Zatezalo also made 16 against Wake Forest in 1969.
Jennings picked up the scoring slack from Booker, who had a 103-degree fever a day earlier and was further neutralized by Virginia Tech’s zone defense.
Jennings said his career-best effort began after practice Saturday when he decided to increase his shooting regimen.
“(Brownell) wants us to make 75 shots every day — you do it on your own,” Jennings said. “You go around the arc and shoot 10 in the corner, 10 on the wings, 10 at the top of the key. I made 300 shots (Saturday). I didn’t leave (the gym) until I made 10 straight free throws.”
Jennings scored 20 points in the second half and made 12 of his free throws after the break, helping Clemson pull away late as the Tigers trailed 59-58 with 6:30 to play.
Clemson improved to 11-8 overall and 3-4 in the Atlantic Coast Conference, while the Hokies fell to 11-8, 2-4.
Clemson guard Damarcus Harrison has also put in extra shooting. He scored a career-best 19 points and made 3 of 7 3-pointers, taking advantage of the Hokies’ decision to go to a zone defense in an attempt to limit Booker. K.J. McDaniels added a career-best five 3s, and Clemson made 10 of 21 3-point attempts for the game.
“It was a good-look day. They played a lot of zone,” Harrison said. “I guess they didn’t think we could make those shots.”
This was the type of shooting Brownell expects from Harrison, a transfer from BYU.
“Damarcus played like the guy I saw when I was recruiting him,” Brownell said. “He’s had a great year for us, defensively. He hasn’t played as well offensively, but a lot of that is confidence.”
While Harrison hasn’t provided the consistent outside scoring Clemson desperately needs, the 6-4 guard has consistently bothered opponents with his 6-10 wingspan. He’s among the team leaders in deflected passes and he was effective Sunday in slowing Hokies leading scorer Erik Green, who entered averaging 25 points.
Clemson has consistently held opponents’ leading scorers below their scoring averages this season, and the Tigers held Green to 7 of 17 shooting Sunday.
“We just wanted to make him see numbers so he couldn’t penetrate a lot,” Harrison said.
It was a much-needed win for Clemson, which was coming off of back-to-back competitive road losses at N.C. State and Florida State.
“On Friday, we were hurting,” Brownell said. “I told them we are not (practicing). … What we all forgot about this week is how well we played. We were tied with N.C. State with two minutes to play. We really outplayed Florida State and lost. The problem with sports is we lose twice, so everyone thinks you’re bad. My job is to build them up and tell them how much better we got last week. I listed about seven things on the board (Friday) in the video room, all the areas where we got better. I said don’t listen to the negativity. So that was a big part of what we were doing: Get our guys to feel good, then we recharged.”