CLEMSON — Five days earlier, K.J. McDaniels had the ball with 12 seconds to play at Florida State, having a chance to make a game-changing play. He did not deliver.
On Tuesday, the sophomore forward again had the ball in his hands with the game in doubt, standing at the free-throw line with Clemson holding a one-point lead and 16.4 seconds to play.
McDaniels was tired. His legs were spent. Clemson was playing its fourth game in nine days. Also weighing on him was Clemson’s unfortunate history at the foul line. It was foul shooting that has cost Clemson at Florida State.
McDaniels went through his routine. He tried to remember that feeling at practice, making free throw after free throw. He made both. After the Georgia Tech’s final desperation shot was off the mark, McDaniels was mobbed at halfcourt by teammate Milton Jennings, celebrating a 63-60 win.
“I was just thinking about practice, shooting my 10 free throws in a row,” said McDaniels, who scored a team-high 15 points. “I just went up there and shot them. My teammates said they knew I would make them.”
They might have been the only ones in Littlejohn Coliseum who had such confidence as Clemson entered shooting 66.7 percent from free throws. McDaniels is a 68 percent foul shooter.
The shots lifted Clemson (12-8, 4-4 ACC) to .500 in league play, and it was an important injection of confidence for McDaniels, as coach Brad Brownell said he needs more playmakers to emerge.
On a night where Devin Booker was still not himself, still recovering from the flu, shooting 3 of 10 from the field, McDaniels provided key scoring. He closed the first half with a putback dunk and layup to give Clemson a 36-30 lead at the break after trailing by 10 with 12:38 to play in the first half.
“A lot of guys in our program are learning how to make big plays,” Brownell said. “Those were big free throws by K.J. at the end; it was good to see him to do that. … Those guys have to realize they are the guys. You can’t always get the ball to Booker, as much as you want to. That’s not always going to be the option.
“It’s a learning experience.”
Brownell was also encouraged by the play of another sophomore, Bernard Sullivan, who has become forgotten at times after his development was hindered by a breathing problem last season. Sullivan played well in subbing for Jennings, who was in foul trouble in the second half.
Sullivan hit a 3 early, showing the range he needs to become a stretch forward.
He also had a putback dunk late in the second half, demonstrating the explosiveness he was advertised to possess as a former four-star recruit and finishing with seven points.
“Bernard was great tonight,” Brownell said. “There’s a huge difference between Bernard this year and last year. He just struggled …. He has his explosiveness back. You saw that tonight.”
What Brownell hopes he saw Tuesday night was two sophomores taking steps forward for a team that is back to .500 but still needs a lift.