CLEMSON — The second time was a charm.
Teams who thoroughly whacked the Clemson men’s basketball team last year as brand-new ACC members — namely, Syracuse and Pittsburgh — are finding this year’s Tigers a tad trickier to beat.
A week after its surprise triumph at Pitt, Clemson (10-7, 2-3 ACC) handed Syracuse its first 2015 ACC loss in decisive fashion, trumping the Orange 66-53 Saturday afternoon at sold-out Littlejohn Coliseum.
Sophomore forward Jaron Blossomgame led the charge inside, and freshman forward Donte Grantham led it outside, combining for 31 points against the vaunted Syracuse zone.
“It definitely helped us getting the ball back, getting a new shot clock and getting more shots for us,” said Blossomgame, who made five offensive rebounds.
Grantham produced a career-best 16 points, leading the Tigers in scoring for the first time in his young career, making 4-of-8 3-point tries.
“Our defense kind of transitioned into good offense,” Grantham said. “That kind of gave us that swagger to go out there and be confident offensively.”
Second chances were key Saturday, and not just from a big-picture view of facing Syracuse for the first time since getting clocked 57-44 last year at The Carrier Dome when the Orange were ranked No. 1 in the country.
The Tigers scored 21 second-chance points, including 16 in the first half alone off of seven offensive rebounds. Clemson won the rebounding battle 40-30.
“When we stopped them in the first half three or four times in a row, they got four putbacks,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “We haven’t really had that happen this year; this was the first game we got really hurt on the boards.”
An alley-oop, tossed by Grantham and thrown down by Blossomgame out of a timeout, and then a long Hall 3-pointer, gave Clemson a 32-13 advantage with just under three minutes to go in the first half.
After trailing by 21 at intermission, Syracuse (13-5, 4-1) found its stroke in the second half, mostly by penetrating the paint, but Clemson summoned just enough offense to hold off Syracuse, which never drew within a dozen points in the second half.
The seats were filled at the ‘John, and though many of the orange shirts were in support of the visiting Orange, the home fans got what they craved: a signature victory over a name-brand program, which welcomed the Tigers to double digits in the win column.
Helping the Tigers’ cause was horrid outside shooting from their guests at the outset. Syracuse received no field goals from anybody besides center Rakeem Christmas until Kaleb Joseph’s driving layup more than 16 minutes in snapped a 0-for-16 streak by the entire Syracuse roster minus the ACC’s second-leading scorer.
Trevor Cooney, he of the 14.5 points-per-game average, was 0-for-7 from the field, misfiring on all five attempts behind the arc. Clemson senior point guard Rod Hall was Cooney’s watchdog, playing every second until the final minute of the game.
“I think our defense had something to it. We’ve seen that movie: the longer it goes where you don’t make (a shot,) the basket’s not as big,” Clemson head coach Brad Brownell said. “I’m not taking Rod out to let Cooney get a shot on somebody else; if he makes a shot, he could go crazy.”
For the game, Syracuse shot 37 percent, its second-worst clip of the year.
Beyond his defensive prowess, Hall chipped in 15 points on just six shots, making five key free throws to ice the victory. The positive vibes were similar to last Saturday, when Clemson avenged a 33-point loss at Pitt in 2014 by knocking off the Panthers on the road 71-62.
The triumphs are sandwiched between a close loss at No. 5 Louisville and a blowout loss at No. 2 Virginia.
“It boosts our confidence a lot,” Hall said. “We see that we can go play with anybody on any given night. I just hope guys keep fighting and doing what they can to help us win.”
About 50 hours after the conclusion of Saturday’s game, Clemson goes right back at it tipping off against Florida State at 9 p.m. Monday, the median of a three-game homestand.
“Last year, we opened with Florida State on a Thursday, then had Duke on Saturday and played really well,” Blossomgame said. “So we’ve just got to stay focused. Can’t be too happy and high on this win; we’ve got to put it behind us and look forward to Florida State.”