Tech (9-8 overall, 5-6 ACC) absorbed a staggering shot to its NCAA tournament hopes in losing at Littlejohn. To build up its tournament credentials, the Jackets came to Clemson in need of wins of any kind, but particularly those over opponents projected to be in the tournament field, as the Tigers are. Asked by the AJC to rate how crucial the game was for Tech’s tournament chances on a scale of 1-10, 10 being most crucial, three bracketology experts graded it at an 8, 8.5 and 10.
With seven regular-season games remaining (two postponed games have yet to be made up), Tech has only one such game left, at No. 18 Virginia Tech Feb. 23. The Jackets may be able to afford one more loss in the regular season, and probably not to the Hokies.
“We’ve got to string a lot of wins together,” Pastner said. “We’ve had some opportunities and this hurt, because it would have been a big win for us.”
Clemson (13-5, 7-5) had a significant advantage in rest. The Jackets had played Wednesday night, a home loss to No. 9 Virginia, initiating a stretch of four games in eight days. Clemson had not played since last Saturday. It perhaps may have factored in the Jackets’ sluggishness coming out of halftime. Ahead 30-26, the Jackets were, in the words of their coach, “lollygagging around” in the opening minutes of the second half.
When Tech was called for a backcourt violation at the 16:41 mark when Wright caught a pass from Jordan Usher just as he was crossing the center line, Pastner slammed his face shield on the scorer’s table, which drew a technical foul, a rarity for Pastner. It was an attempt to get his team’s attention, he said after the game. Pastner had witnessed his team quickly lose a six-point halftime advantage to the Cavaliers on Wednesday and feared a repeat.
“We needed to get some energy,” said Pastner, who added that he didn’t say anything to officials about the call. “We had to do something. I felt like we were about to lose it right there.”
When Pastner slammed the clear plastic visor to the table, he misshapened it and wore it in its damaged form for the remainder of the game. Worse, Clemson made the two free throws to take their first lead of the game at 38-37.
Alvarado played an unusually unproductive game, finishing with eight points on 3-for-11 shooting, 2-for-7 from 3-point range. Devoe, coming off a two-point effort in the team’s loss to Virginia, rebounded with 23 points on 7-for-12 shooting to go with six assists and a career-high five steals. Wright, limited to 30 minutes by foul trouble in the first half, scored 15 on 6-for-7 shooting with five rebounds and four blocks.
“Jose didn’t play real well (Friday), unfortunately,” Pastner said. “We need a game where him and Mike both play really well together.”
Alvarado’s free throws were the first he had taken all game. Ranked fourth in the ACC in free-throw percentage, Alvarado was 43-for-49 coming into the game and had not missed consecutive free throws in a game all season.
“Jose, obviously, 99.9% of the time, he’s going to make those free throws,” Pastner said.
“We’ve got his back, just like how they have my back when I have a bad game,” Devoe said. “It happens. He played his heart out (Friday). He’s going to be his biggest critic right now and he’s going to be hard on himself, but, at the end of the day, we believe in him and he’s our guy.”
With Alvarado struggling, guard Bubba Parham and Usher in particular made strong contributions besides Devoe. They both scored 12 and combined for nine rebounds. The Jackets made a number of winning plays. Parham hit a tough 3-pointer to tie the game at 51. After that, Devoe stripped Clyde Trapp in the post from behind and scored on a transition layup. Usher worked a screen-and-roll with Wright and fed him for a dunk and a 61-59 lead. On Clemson’s ensuing possession, Alvarado forced a turnover when he pressured Honor in the backcourt and he lost the ball out of bounds. Devoe made both ends of a one-and-one with 18.4 seconds left to put the Jackets in a 72-69 lead.
However, the Jackets didn’t have enough of those moments. Clemson, 11th in the ACC in 3-point field-goal percentage (32.3%), was 9-for-18, including three by Aamir Simms, who tied his career high with 25 points. In the final 13 minutes of the game, Tech took a three-point lead on seven occasions. On each, when a stop and a basket could have put the Jackets up by more than one possession, Clemson scored on all seven of its next possessions.
Meanwhile, Tech was off again from 3-point range (5-for-19) after shooting 4-for-21 from 3 against Virginia. After recording two games shooting below 30% from 3-point range in their first 12 games, the Jackets have been below that threshold four times in the past five games.
“It’s going to be hard for us, based on how we play, if we’re not shooting the ball better from 3,” Pastner said.
In the big picture of Pastner’s tenure, now in its fifth season, it was a significant game. Pastner has long pointed to this season as part of his “get old and stay old” plan as the year that the Jackets would be in position to finally return to the NCAA tournament. With a senior-loaded roster, the Jackets appeared to have the talent to do it. The loss to Clemson doesn’t eliminate Tech from the race, but it has made the task considerably harder.
As for the smaller picture, the Jackets have to regather themselves to play Pitt on Sunday afternoon, their third game in five days. The Panthers have not played since last Saturday. Sunday’s matchup will be a test of both physical and mental strength.
“We’ve got to forget about this and come to compete on Sunday,” Devoe said.