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Tigers Get Set for Championship Battle

March 24, 1999


NEW YORK (AP) – Clemson is looking for its first postseason championship in 60 years. California has been waiting 40 years.

On Thursday night, the drought will end for one of them when the Tigers (20-14) and Golden Bears (21-11) play for the National Invitation Tournament title at Madison Square Garden.

“It’s significant for us to be in a tournament,” California coach Ben Braun said Wednesday. “This team takes pride in its performance and wants to go out on a winning note.”

So does Clemson.

“Even though we didn’t make the NCAA tournament, we got selected for the NIT and decided we would try to go out there and win it,” Tigers guard Terrell McIntyre said.

In Tuesday night’s semifinals, Clemson held off a furious comeback by Xavier and won 79-76 despite blowing s 24-point lead with under 15 minutes to play.

California had an easier time as Michael Gill scored 17 of his career-high 22 points in the first nine minutes of the second half and the Golden Bears beat Pac-10 rival Oregon 85-69.

The NIT may be perceived as loser’s event, but the finalists certainly don’t see it that way. A win would be a fitting sendoff for the seniors as well as provide a building block for next season.

“We’re feeling confident right now,” Clemson first-year coach Larry Shyatt said. “Our older players don’t want it to end and the younger players are enjoying the ride.”

For California, there’s an even bigger reward for senior starters Francisco Elson, Thomas Kilgore, Geno Carlisle and Gill. The foursome came to Cal two years ago knowing the school was facing NCAA sanctions.

“I’m really happy for them,” Braun said. “They came to our program and they came at a tough time. Now they have an opportunity to go out winners. This tournament is very important to our program and players.”

Two years ago, the Golden Bears reached the final 16 of the NCAA tournament, but were banned from postseason play last year for an alleged illegal payment by former coach Todd Bozeman’s staff to a recruit.

Not one of California’s current players had played in a postseason game before this season.

After California avenged two regular-season losses to Oregon, Elson said: “We did not want to go out with a loss. We wanted to win the championship. We want to keep playing for something. We didn’t want to finish third or fourth. We just wanted to win.”

Clemson may have finished 5-11 in the Atlantic Coast Conference, but winning the NIT would ease the pain of an inconsistent season.

“Throughout the season we weren’t having as much fun as we did our first three years, and that showed in our play,” McIntyre, the 5-foot-9 senior who scored 20 points against Xavier. “We just want to go out and have fun and that’s what we’re doing.”

Clemson’s only postseason title came 60 years ago when the Tigers won the Southern Conference; California won the NCAA tournament in 1959.

Xavier (24-11) plays Oregon (19-12) for third place before the NIT title game.