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Raising the Bar

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Raising the Bar

Ben Winterrowd

Only once had Clemson been to an Elite Eight, and only four times had the Tigers been to a Sweet 16. To add perspective, three times as many American astronauts have walked on the moon compared to Clemson’s Sweet 16 appearances. Now Clemson has been to the second weekend twice in the last six seasons, including the program’s second-ever Elite Eight appearance – with 44 years separating the two. History made.

Sunday, March 12, 2023, is a day that Tiger fans and the Clemson Basketball staff and players will remember forever. Clemson was snubbed from an NCAA Tournament appearance after a 23-win season, including a program record 14 ACC wins, not to mention two All-League players in Hunter Tyson and PJ Hall.

That moment fueled the fire for 2024.

Leave No Doubt

Clemson lost All-ACC First Team member and team captain Hunter Tyson to the 2023 NBA Draft after he was selected 37th overall by the Oklahoma City Thunder (pick traded to Denver Nuggets). They also lost Brevin Galloway and Ben Middlebrooks as they looked to reload for another run at the NCAA Tournament.

A great core was returning for Head Coach Brad Brownell’s team, but there were a few pieces that still needed to be ironed out before the roster was finalized.

Enter guard Joseph Girard III.

A veteran of 125 games in the ACC with league foe Syracuse, Girard helped stabilize the backcourt with Chase Hunter and boost the team’s distance shooting, which later proved to be historic. Adding Girard was a coup for the basketball staff, who also brought in Jack Clark (NC State) and Bas Leyte (UNCG).

Fully reloaded after 2023, there was a chip on the shoulder of everyone in 2024, and it showed early in the season.

The Tigers won their season opener against Winthrop before claiming their second regular season tournament championship in the last four years with victories over UAB and Davidson at the Asheville Championship. They won home games against perennial NCAA Tournament member Boise State and Alcorn State and were 5-0 heading into the first annual ACC/SEC Challenge.

Built For This

Coach Brownell’s message to the team in Tuscaloosa was that they were “built for this.” The message was when the Tigers play at their best, they can compete with anyone, anytime and anywhere.

“I told the team, we’re built for this. We have an older group, we’re experienced, we were a good team last year. We need to weather the storm,” Brownell recalled telling the team after Alabama made a run in the second half.

The Tigers in 2023-24 were certainly built to take another team’s best punch and respond. It was key for them during a difficult stretch in November and December.

The game against Alabama started a demanding stretch of games for the Tigers that included a road game at the Crimson Tide, road game at Pittsburgh, home to South Carolina, neutral site game against TCU and a road game at Memphis.

Clemson came out of that stretch 4-1 and was playing some of its best basketball.

The Tigers finished the non-conference slate of games 10-1 and were 11-1 before the start of the New Year with their first ACC victory over Pittsburgh.

Taking Punches

Clemson opened the New Year ranked No. 16 in the Associated Press Poll. They dropped the next three games and finished January with a 3-5 record. They began February with another gut-punching one-point loss to Virginia.

The Tigers stood at 4-6 in the ACC, which included one-point losses to Virginia and at Duke, while dropping a home game in overtime to Georgia Tech that they led 68-59 with 1:43 to go in the second half.

Guys, we need to understand something,” Brownell recalled telling his team after the Virginia game. “I think some of you guys think we’re the 10-1 team. Right now, we’re the 4-6 team. If we go 4-6 again, we won’t be playing in the NCAA Tournament. That would be a shame because of what you did the first two months of the year, but also because I think we’re good enough to go to the Final Four.

Historic February

The Tigers stood at 4-6 in the ACC and faced something only one Clemson team had ever accomplished, succeeding in a road test at No. 3 North Carolina. The team’s focus and preparation were reminiscent of November and December as they prepared for battle in the Dean Dome.

Clemson raced out to a 15-2 lead against the Tar Heels in the opening three-and-a-half minutes of the game, setting the tone. North Carolina would make a run, but the Tigers held firm and led by nine at halftime.

Every punch the Tar Heels threw, Clemson dodged or answered. In a game the Tigers led for 38:22, it was tied twice. The Tar Heels’ Harrison Ingram brought the game back square with a 3-pointer to knot it at 70-all.

The Tigers responded with an emphatic 7-0 run to shut the door on its second victory all-time in Chapel Hill and its second in three tries dating back to 2020.

An emotional mid-week road victory can be hard to follow, especially when the next game is a noon Saturday game on the road. The turnaround was quick and emotions remained high as the Tigers looked to climb back to .500 in the league. After scoring 21 points to aid PJ Hall’s 25 and Ian Schieffelin’s double-double at Carolina, Joseph Girard III was returning to Syracuse.

As surreal as it was to witness, Girard returned home to lots of cheers and lots of boos. He wasn’t unfamiliar with the visiting locker room at the JMA Wireless Dome, formally known as the Carrier Dome. After all, he was 2-0 in there after winning two state football championships at Glens Falls High School.

Girard didn’t force anything. He let the game come to him. A team that knew him well didn’t make it easy, but Girard broke through with his first triple at the 11:01 mark of the first half. It was part of an explosive 17-1 run by Clemson who would lead by 13 at the break.

Like earlier that week, the Tigers got out to a big lead and were sustaining it in a tough road environment. Their mentality reflected what Coach Brownell told the team in November; they were built for this.

Staving off the hungry home team was no easy feat. The Orange brought the game even at 60-60 with 3:37 to go. Almost like it was scripted, a 7-0 run ensued for the Tigers: Hall bucket, Chase Hunter jumper, Schieffelin 3-pointer and it was 67-60 in one minute and 43 seconds.

As the Tigers looked to close the book on what turned out to be a tremendous storybook ending, Girard added some magic that so often happens in sports. Closing out the game at the free throw line, Girard finished 4-4 in the final minute to seal the win and finish with a game-high 18 points. Coming into the game, he was exactly 18 points shy of 2,000 for his career. Yes, you can be romantic about basketball.

Clemson used the momentum of that week and polished off February with a glistening 6-2 record, its third-most wins in the month in program history. They were right back in the thick of an NCAA Tournament bid.

March Madness

Clemson went 1-3 in March, which included a 22-point loss to Boston College in the second round of the ACC Tournament. There was a bleakness to the rest of the Tigers’ season from the outside, but inside, it re-focused a hungry group who had expected themselves to accomplish much more.

Then the Tigers were selected as the No. 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament and facing No. 11 New Mexico.

“It’s a special tournament, it’s one of the biggest sporting events in the country and the world…it was one of the goals this year, but it’s a checkpoint,” said Hall after the Selection Show. “We’re not just looking to get there. We want to make a run and continue to advance.”

“It’s a reset,” said Girard.

Hunter added, “We’ve got another tournament and more games to prove ourselves.”

Many pundits were taking turns kicking the Tigers while they were down following the ACC Tournament, and Clemson was picked by ESPN as the No. 1 upset pick of the tournament’s first round – as if the team needed any more motivation in a return to Memphis where the Tigers had played earlier in the year.

Clemson came out and smacked New Mexico in the mouth. With the score 11-9 in favor of the Tigers, Clemson would go on a 19-0 run to blow the game wide open. It would lead by as many as 23 in the second half, racing away to a 77-56 thrashing.

The Tigers returned to face No. 3 seeded Baylor who did much the same against its first-round opponent, Colgate. Clemson used a couple of runs in the opening stanza to build a safe lead before Chase Hunter’s heroics at the end of the first half on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer extended the lead to 10.

Clemson led by as many as 15 in the second half with Baylor cutting the deficit to just two with 2:19 left. From that point, the Tigers finished 8-for-8 at the foul line to seal the 72-64 victory and advance to just their fifth Sweet 16 in history and the second since 2018.

The celebration in the locker room was everything one would expect from an emotional, hungry ball club that was playing its best basketball and proving doubters wrong in the process.

What happened next was one of the crazier turnarounds for a team riding such an emotional high. Clemson returned home from Memphis at 3:15 a.m. following its win over Baylor. They were back on the bus at roughly 4 p.m. to head back to the airport to fly to Los Angeles for the West Regional. The trip even included a stop in Oklahoma City to refuel the plane.

The Tigers finally made it to the City of Angels. They would play in the House that Kobe [Bryant] built, with his statue and other Lakers and Kings legends outside the arena.

They would face the No. 2 seeded Arizona Wildcats who figured to have 10-15,000 fans in the arena for the game. They averaged 87.1 points per game and had won 27 contests to that point.

“Make them guard. Do not bail them out,” Brownell told the team pregame. “Make these dudes who love playing offense, scoring 87 a game, see how they like to guard. Guys, it ain’t sexy, but this is what wins.”

The Tigers landed the first punch, jumping out to a 29-16 lead, holding the Wildcats to just 16 points through the opening 14 minutes of the game. They would lead by eight at the break, 39-31.

Coach Brownell warned his team at halftime that Arizona was going to punch back.

“You’re gonna get a punch. Okay? Take it and punch back.”

That punch came early in the second half as Arizona mounted a 13-4 run to take the lead 46-45. The Tigers responded by Girard finding Jack Clark for a top of the key 3-pointer to regain the lead. Clemson sustained until Arizona tied the game again at 56, but a 9-2 run was the response from the Tigers, and they never looked back.

Following a Wildcat three to cut their deficit to 72-70, Chase Hunter and Dillon Hunter scored back-to-back buckets, including Chase’s and-one play to seal the game and send the Tigers to the Elite Eight.

Clemson’s season eventually ended with an 89-82 loss to Alabama in the Elite Eight. The Crimson Tide made 16 3-pointers in a rematch from earlier in the season.

This team was special. Fourth-most wins in program history (24), second-most wins in consecutive seasons in program history (47), most ACC wins in consecutive seasons (25) and highest winning percentage over that span in program history (.625), five ACC road wins in 2023-24, was the most in history, 12 wins away from home, the most in one season, defeated nine NCAA Tournament teams – the most in one season in history, and won four games against Top 25 teams away from home – the most in history.

Clemson continues to raise the bar in basketball.

Hall and Hunter are ones that have helped raise that bar in basketball under Coach Brownell and it was confirmed following the Tigers’ loss in the Elite Eight.

…we had our eyes set on big goals,” said Hall. “Obviously, we’ve achieved great stuff, but we came up short on what we really wanted to do. It’ll set in whenever we get back and reflect a little bit and feel the love from the campus and community and know they had our backs through all of this. It was an incredible ride. It was an expected ride. I’m proud of these guys.”

Hunter added this following the win over Arizona in the locker room.

Him [PJ] and me had a moment in the locker room. I told him we made history. We did some big things for this program. I think with him and me doing that, we’ve set this program to a new standard. We plan on keep being in games like this.

A perfect encapsulation of Clemson’s culture was summarized by Girard following the Elite Eight loss to Alabama. He was asked what he would say to those who were considering coming to Clemson.

Do it. I mean, this place has been unbelievable. It all goes back to the culture. That’s what was attractive to me…Clemson is just an unbelievable place with unbelievable people. They obviously develop their players, and they win a lot of basketball games. Anyone looking forward to living in a great place, playing with great people, playing for great people, and doing great things should go to Clemson.

Hall, Hunter and Girard leave no doubt as they review such a historic season and raise the bar for the future of Clemson Basketball.