TRACK THE TIGERS IN THE BIG APPLE

What: National Invitation Tournament semifinal

When: April 1, 7 p.m.

Where: Madison Square Garden, New York City

Who: Clemson (23-12) vs. SMU (26-9)

TV: ESPN2

Follow beat writer Aaron Brenner for updates from New York on Twitter @Aaron_Brenner

NEW YORK - Patience has a deeper meaning for Damarcus Harrison.

"Better late than never, man," Harrison says.

Harrison says that in the immediate aftermath of Clemson's 73-68 home victory March 25 over Belmont, when the junior guard struggled to just two points at halftime and six points with five minutes remaining and the Tigers trailing by five.

Harrison drained two 3-pointers and a jumper to give his team, the one not in his plans two years ago, a one-point lead. His pair of free throws with eight seconds left cinched Clemson's return trip to Madison Square Garden for the NIT semifinals Tuesday night against Southern Methodist.

Ten points in the last 4 minutes, 12 seconds to save his squad. (He had 16 total.) Kind of like Clemson's NIT opener March 18, when he didn't score in the first 17 minutes yet finished with 17 points to beat Georgia State 78-66.

Star forward K.J. McDaniels is the household name, but Harrison's been the newfound catalyst for Clemson's surge to New York City. He's averaged 11.3 points per game since taking over the starting 2-guard spot Feb. 15, with eight double-figure efforts - of which he previously had none for 15 consecutive games dating to early December.

"I just wanted to stay positive all through the season, even through the lows," Harrison says. "I'm just glad I'm playing big now, because that's the most important (time) in the postseason."

Clemson wouldn't be here without Harrison. And Harrison wouldn't be here without a few bumps in his road, which very easily could have temporarily led him away from basketball.

Mission impossible

Born and raised in Greenwood but finishing his prep career at The Christ School in Arden, N.C., Harrison held a Clemson offer entering college. He also had interest from Wisconsin and Virginia - a Final Four participant and No. 1 seed, respectively, in this year's NCAA tournament - plus Florida State, a fellow NIT semifinalist, and College of Charleston.

Harrison settled on Brigham Young. He and his three older siblings were raised Mormon. At the outset, Harrison intended to commit four consecutive years to BYU basketball, with no interruptions.

But after his freshman year in 2011-12, when Damarcus averaged 8.8 minutes and 3.2 points in 30 games, he began to hear from big brother D.J., who was on his two-year mission in the outer regions of Chicago - in the same ward as Duke freshman phenom Jabari Parker.

Missionaries serving the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints do not choose their destination. It could be two years in Tulsa or Tokyo, or anywhere in between domestically or internationally.

"I couldn't speak on the phone, but I was able to e-mail him, and so I would send letters and tell him to keep the faith," says D.J. Harrison, who's now a sophomore at BYU. "I would tell him about life as a missionary, and how it would make him a better man and how I was becoming a better man. I told him how he could have those same experiences and encouraged him to go on a mission."

Little brother Damarcus listened.

"So after the season, I decided I wanted to go and pursue my mission," he says. "When I started all the paperwork and everything to do it, I had to go home and see my original bishop at home to do that."

However, when paperwork was filed, Harrison was told he'd have to wait a year to conduct his mission. That created a problem; BYU has already reserved his athletic scholarship for another player, and so Harrison had no choice but to leave the Cougars.

"It woke me up"

A future uncertain, Harrison took a summer job on the assembly line at his father's employer, Eaton Corporation in his native Greenwood.

"It was pretty hard on him, having to be in the real world," says his father Derek, "getting up for work at 5 o'clock in the morning sometimes, working overtime."

How many hours per week as a working stiff?

"Too many," Damarcus says. "It woke me up to a whole another world that I really didn't want to be in."

Maybe Harrison would still be working there - maybe he'd be on his mission - if not for one of Clemson head coach Brad Brownell's brand new assistant coach hires in 2012.

Steve Smith, late in his seven-year stint as a USC Upstate assistant, had recruited D.J. Harrison, who ended up at a junior college before BYU. Clemson had an open scholarship and playing time to offer.

"I mean, I guess God works in mysterious ways," Harrison said. "Because (Smith) just got the job, and he said, I'm gonna check with Brad and see what we can do. From then on, I came and met with Coach Brownell, and he said he was going to sign me."

Clemson applied for, and was granted, Harrison's hardship waiver to play immediately at Clemson based on his unique circumstances. He averaged 5.2 points in 31 games (14 starts) his sophomore year.

All in for now

Harrison hadn't forgotten his brother's message; he attempted again to seek the opportunity to serve his mission. Again, there was a hold-up. Today, Harrison's mission plans are postponed indefinitely.

"Because I didn't want to just barely be in the program for one year, and then come back out of shape like I did when I came to Clemson - then be off two years and try to come back," Harrison said. "I probably won't reach my dream of any kind of professional level.

"I was like, I just want to play basketball, because I didn't have the best year last year, and I wanted to see if I could focus on basketball and see what I could get out of it."

Twice denied his Mormon mission, Harrison's new objective is refining his game, even if it means waiting his turn.

He's traded off the shooting guard spot with Jordan Roper, who excelled in the first half of those Georgia State and Belmont triumphs before Harrison took over in the second half.

"Our team's better this year at playing with each other," Harrison said. "If somebody's got it going, we'll keep getting them the ball; like Rope in the first half, when he's scoring 12 points in the first seven minutes. Whoever's got it going, we try to keep him going."

Harrison's got it going. Late in games, late in this season, late in his career. Better late than never.

"That's basketball," Harrison said. "You've just got to play, because you never know when you're going to have the opportunity. You've got to take advantage of it every time."