By PETE IACOBELLI
CLEMSON — K.J. McDaniels took a deep breath and remembered all those practices where he stood at the foul line with no one around him or in the stands. And just like in workouts, Clemson’s rising sophomore star made both shots.
McDaniels scored 15 points – including those two free throws with 16 seconds left after the Tigers’ double-digit lead had shrunk to a point – to hold off Georgia Tech 63-60 on Tuesday night. McDaniels says he shook off the pressure, knowing his teammates needed him to come up big.
“I imagined no one was there and just shot them,” McDaniels said. “Everybody on the team told me, `We knew you were going to hit the free throws.”’
The Tigers (12-8, 4-4 Atlantic Coast Conference) didn’t look like they’d need late foul shots to win this one, turning Georgia Tech’s 10-point first-half lead into a 43-32 lead of their own on Rod Hall’s jam with 16:54 left.
But the Yellow Jackets gradually chipped away after that and cut the margin to 61-60 after Mfon Udofia’s foul shot with 17.2 seconds remaining. That’s when McDaniels’ curled around to take the inbounds pass, got fouled by Udofia and confidently made the two shots on a night Clemson was just 6 of 12 from the foul line.
“I like that they had confidence in me,” McDaniels said.
And why not?
The 6-foot-6 McDaniels is turning into a reliable scoring option for the young Tigers. He’s reached double figures in four of Clemson’s past five games and has shown touch from long range (11 3-pointers in that stretch) and around the basket with several high-flying, highlight jams.
McDaniels’ performance saved the Tigers on a night when their senior post-players, Devin Booker and Milton Jennings, struggled to score. Booker, the team’s leading scorer coming in, was 3 of 10 from the field for eight points. Jennings followed up a 28-point showing in Sunday’s win over Virginia Tech with nine points on 4-of-12 shooting before fouling out.
“We just had to play hard tonight, pick up people who are down,” said Damarcus Harrison, a BYU transfer who hit two of Clemson’s five 3-pointers and finished with eight points.
The Yellow Jackets had several chances to reel in Clemson down the stretch. Udofia missed a wide-open 3 with 2:09 left and his team down 58-55. After McDaniels’ foul shot on the Tigers’ next possession, Chris Bolden threw a pass wide of Daniel Miller to turn the ball over with 1:22 to play.
Still, Udofia made three foul shots and Miller scored on a putback in the final minute to get within a point. The Yellow Jackets’ last chance to tie ended when Reed was off the mark on a 3-point attempt from left of the basket.
Miller had a career-high 16 points and Kammeon Holsey 14 to lead Georgia Tech.
Yellow Jackets coach Brian Gregory said his team’s rally in the second half showed it would not quit in difficult situations. “It shows we’re making progress,” he said. “But sometimes, progress isn’t enough, we need to get the job done. I’m disappointed.”
The Tigers were finishing up a stretch of four games in nine days and improved to 8-2 at Littlejohn Coliseum.
Both Clemson and Georgia Tech carried some momentum into the contest.
The Tigers broke a two-game losing streak last Sunday as they rallied in the second half to defeat Virginia Tech 77-70. The Yellow Jackets finally broke through after starting ACC play with five straight losses, defeating Wake Forest 82-62 and shooting over 50 percent after not breaking 40 percent in their previous five games.
Georgia Tech, last in ACC shooting percentage coming in, carried that touch into this one and made eight of its first 10 shots to open a 20-10 lead after Holsey’s three-point play less than eight minutes into the opening half.
Then Clemson tightened its defense and got back in it, closing the half on a 26-10 run. McDaniels got the run started with a jumper. Freshman Jordan Roper hit two outside shots to cut the lead to 26-24. Three minutes later, McDaniels had a 3-pointer and an inside shot to put the Tigers up for the first time, 31-30.
Harrison had a 3-pointer and McDaniels closed the run with a layup and Clemson went to the half ahead 36-30.
Georgia Tech made only five of its final 15 shots and had no field goals over the final five minutes.
The Yellow Jackets started 3 of 3 on long-range baskets, then struggled the rest of the way as they made only one of their last 12, including Reed’s miss just before the buzzer sounded.