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Mar 24, 2019

Tiger Talk: Clemson’s Success Rooted in Senior Leadership

By: Cole Little

Fully embracing the underdog role, the Clemson Tigers have put a twist on the “Cinderella nickname,” coining themselves the “ugly ducklings,” an epithet that perfectly encapsulates the Tigers’ hard-nosed playing style and sums up their role in the 2019 NCAA Tournament. Leading the way for the Tigers in their expectation-shattering season is three well-rounded seniors, who, despite their lack of postseason history, have brought plenty of experience and poise to March Madness.

A four-years starter, Danielle Edwards saw her dedication to the Clemson program pay off this year, producing one of the most marvelous performances of her career in Clemson’s first-round victory over the South Dakota Coyotes. Aliyah Collier proved to be the X-factor off the bench for the Tigers this year after overcoming an early-season injury.

As for shooting guard Simone Westbrook, she was the perfect catalyst for taking the Clemson program to the next level. Westbrook, who transferred to Clemson from Florida, came into the season as the only Tiger with NCAA Tournament experience. The seventh-year ball player has faced many setbacks in her career but saw her long-term commitment to the game of basketball come to fruition on Friday night in Clemson’s first NCAA Tournament game since 2002.

While the seniors have dealt with their fair share of tribulations as college athletes, the long road to success made for the ultimate underdog story that encapsulates the very essence of the ugly duckling Tigers. Edwards and Westbrook have both averaged over 13 points per game this season, and their defensive intensity earned them spots on the All-ACC Defensive Team. Westbrook led the ACC in steals and Edwards knocked down several critical 3-pointers and drew crucial charges during the Tigers’ journey to the Big Dance.

““[Defense] is where we thrive,” said Westbrook. “It’s where we get our offense from. The more pressure we can put on them, the more we’re able to get out, get in our lanes, push the ball ahead and run the floor. That’s where we’re unstoppable.””

Collier ascent to greatness reached its highest peak in the 2019 ACC Tournament, posting a career-high 28 points with four made 3-pointers to carry the Tigers to a dramatic overtime win against the Virginia Tech Hokies in the second round. In 25 minutes off the bench in her March Madness debut, Collier tallied 16 points and manned the Clemson fast break over the course of the contest.

“I think we were great in transition,” said Collier. “Whenever we got a rebound, we would go into a stop. As long as we’re running our lanes and we kick the ball ahead, I think we’re really good.”

In the round of 64 matchup with South Dakota, it was Edwards’ turn to embrace the spotlight. Matching her career high with five treys, Edwards sank three consecutive 3-pointers in the fourth quarter to cap off a game-clinching run for the Tigers in their 79-66 triumph. Edwards was second only to Westbrook in points, and her pivotal shooting put a bow on the win.

“It felt amazing to be out there,” said Edwards. “This stage is huge, and it’s always been a dream of mine to be here.”

Westbrook dominated the fast break for Clemson, converting South Dakota’s turnovers into scoring opportunities for the Tigers. Westbrook has solidified herself as a Clemson legend with her impeccable play this season, which was fully represented by her team-leading 27-point output against South Dakota.

““We have an amazing group of seniors,” said Butler. “There’s such a family thing at Clemson. It’s not what you’re doing; it’s who you’re doing it with. I think that makes it that much more special.””

While the lack postseason experience for the Tigers seemed problematic, the abundance of all-around experience on the Clemson team was enough to overcome any impediments in the first round of the Big Dance. Collier, Edwards and Westbrook have each put together dissimilar journeys to Clemson’s highly anticipated Round of 32 matchup against the hosting Mississippi State Bulldogs.

However, their shared drive and dedication to becoming leaders for this season’s ACC Cinderella squad is what unifies them as competitors capable of making the Clemson underdog story one that will reach far beyond symbolic monikers and be remembered as the season that the Clemson women’s basketball team used trust, loyalty and commitment to achieve greatness.