CLEMSON — Sleepwalking for most the afternoon, Clemson enjoyed a sweet finish to its three-game homestand courtesy of its ninth man in the rotation.
Reserve forward Josh Smith’s putback follow with 0.5 seconds left on the clock capitalized the Tigers’ comeback 59-57 victory over visiting Wake Forest Saturday afternoon to delight an announced crowd of 8,056.
Senior point guard Rod Hall’s drive-and-scoop in the waning moments was no good, but the rebound tipped off of Hall’s hands and directly to those of Smith, who alertly laid in the game-winner with half a second remaining.
“I definitely thought Rod would get the shot off; it was up to everybody else to crash the boards and follow from that,” Smith said.
Wake’s desperation heave was no good, giving Smith — who scored six points Saturday, boosting his scoring average to 2.7 points — the first game-winning shot of his life.
The box score will show it was just a layup, but Smith admitted he felt as wobbly as he ever has hitting basketball’s easiest shot.
“I wasn’t thinking at all. I just grabbed the ball and put it back in,” said Smith, who logged 17 minutes, one off his season high. “I’m still shaking right now.”
This is how close Clemson (11-8, 3-4 ACC) came to its fourth home loss against a team outside the RPI top 90: in a 40-minute game, Wake Forest (9-11, 1-6) led for more than 37 minutes of action. Clemson led for 25 seconds, and not at all until freshman forward Donte Grantham’s free throw with 58.6 seconds remaining.
“We were climbing a mountain all day,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said. “We needed to fight through and win a game at home, where it hasn’t been easy.”
Ultimately, Clemson rallied from down 40-28, serving as its largest deficit overcome in a victory this season.
Brownell juggled the starting lineup for the first time this season, opting for shooting guard Jordan Roper and center Sidy Djitte over Damarcus Harris and Landry Nnoko, respectively.
Roper responded with 12 points, his first double-digit output since the opener against Florida A&M. Roper and Grantham, who had a team-high 13 points and seven rebounds, each made multiple plays throughout the afternoon to revive a lackluster mood on the court.
“Coach really got on us — a lot of times throughout a game he’ll be like, ‘you guys are fine, you guys are fine.’ Today, he was like, ‘you guys are not fine,’ ” Roper said.
“We had to find a way to make some tough plays. Luckily for us, we kept fighting and got us back in the game.”
Wake Forest had the ball with the score tied and 30 seconds to play, but Hall poked it loose from Cody Miller-McIntyre for a steal, granting Clemson the final possession.
The Tigers survived, despite shooting just 35 percent from the floor, 22 percent from 3-point range and 56 percent from the line.
“You just have to keep chipping away,” Roper said. “You can’t stop playing just because you’re down. It’s a game of runs, so we stayed positive and kept grinding.”
The Demon Deacons made just 31 percent of their field goals, wasting Devin Thomas’ 17 points and 12 rebounds.
“We have to do a better job of finishing and closing the game,” said first-year coach Danny Manning, whose team has also lost close to Louisville, Duke and Syracuse. “But give Clemson credit, they continued to battle and fight.”
Smith’s offensive board on the winning bucket gave him eight rebounds, a career high.
“I’m really happy for Josh, a kid that’s worked really hard and brings great energy to our team,” Brownell said. “A moment like that is something he’ll remember a long time.”