CLEMSON - Nothing has come easy all year. No reason to start now.
NEXT WEEK IN THE BIG APPLE
What: National Invitation Tournament semifinal
When: April 1, 7 or 9 p.m.
Where: Madison Square Garden, New York City
Who: Clemson (23-12) vs. SMU (25-9)/California (21-13)
Clemson led by 12 late in the first half vs. Belmont. Mattered little for a team that's played 12 of its last 16 games to a one- or two-possession decision.
With the bright lights in their sights, Clemson and Belmont ended up trading 12 lead changes, supplemented with eight ties, in a thrilling NIT quarterfinal.
And when the last of 40 minutes ticked off the clock, Clemson stood strong once again, triumphing 73-68 in Tuesday night's 12-rounder.
No, it's not the glitz and glamour of the NCAA tournament, but that hardly muted the party spilling onto the floor with a court-storming at Littlejohn Coliseum.
"It's a great feeling," star forward K.J. McDaniels said. "I'm proud of my teammates, proud of the coaches, proud of the fans, and we're going to go up there and try to get the title."
Cue up Frank Sinatra. The floor is yours, Jay-Z and Alicia Keys. Next stop, New York.
Clemson (23-12) will face either Southern Methodist or California next Tuesday night in the NIT semifinals at the basketball mecca, Madison Square Garden.
But first, a few words blessing Episode 19 from Littlejohn Coliseum this season, the season finale serving as the stage for the wildest, most electrically charged back-and-forth affair possible. For the second time in three days, 10,000 fans filled the bowls, hanging on every 3-ball and loose ball for two hours.
As it relates to basketball tempo, Clemson prefers Sinatra's classical music mood, but heavy metal took over as Belmont began firing away from beyond the arc.
The Bruins were far from shy - they missed nine of their first 11 3-point tries, yet kept on shooting, and ended up pouring in 12 triples, matching the most Clemson has allowed in the four-year Brad Brownell era.
It behooved the Bruins (26-10) to grab 18 offensive rebounds; however, Belmont only converted those second-chance opportunities into 13 points.
"I think they were hustle long rebounds," Belmont coach Rick Byrd said. "They weren't our guys getting around them and them not boxing out. It was about effort on our part and it actually got us some kick-out threes in the first half."
Craig Bradshaw's 3 gave Belmont a 63-58 lead with 4:45 to go. That's when junior Damarcus Harrison took over, pouring in eight points the rest of the way to pull even with McDaniels for a team-high 16 points on the night.
"I was struggling," Harrison acknowledged, before sharing assistant coach Earl Grant's message after Harrison splashed a three before the final media timeout: if you're in rhythm, no doubt, let it fly.
"Once he told me that, I stopped thinking about it and I was just shooting them," Harrison said. "They were falling for me tonight."
McDaniels is no longer a one-man show. Besides Harrison's 16, Clemson got 12 from Jordan Roper (all in the first half), seven each from reserves Adonis Filer and Ibrahim Djambo, and five more from point guard Rod Hall (who didn't score in the first 36 minutes) and center Landry Nnoko (who had nine rebounds.)
"I know all our guys are great scorers," McDaniels said. "To see that confidence build, it makes me proud to know they're out there fighting just as hard as I am. You can't ask for much more than a group of fellas like that."
Clemson finished 16-3 at home this year, only the second time in program history the Tigers have been that victorious at Littlejohn Coliseum, matching the 2006-07 campaign that resulted in a run to the NIT finals.
Strange that the fans stormed the court? Time for your daily reminder: this Clemson squad was supposed to stink. The Tigers were 13-18 last year, with little evidence to suggest a bounceback.
"We didn't settle for anybody else's expectations," Harrison said. "We set a standard for us . we've grinded, we play our hardest every time we step on the court, and we set a new standard. This has taken us this far in the postseason."
Their total of 23 wins (and counting) following a losing season is, according to the Clemson sports information staff, the second-most for an ACC program since Duke in 1983-84, when a young coach by the name of Mike Krzyzewski was building a powerhouse.
That Duke team had 24. Do the math. Clemson matches the Blue Devils with a win Tuesday. Clemson exceeds them if it raises the trophy April 3.
"You want to see young people rewarded for doing things the right way - working hard and playing together, being unselfish," Brownell said. "This group deserves some of the things they've had happen for them."
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