Clemson goes from No. 1 to NIT
TAMPA -- How do you get from 17-0 to the NIT?
The hard way, obviously. You can only devolve from bulletproof to burst bubble one blown possession, one bricked free throw, one bizarre whistle at a time.
It took 54 days for Clemson's time-lapse collapse to play out, but then it ended with a four-minute flurry here Thursday afternoon. Bad luck meets bad execution meets bad call, and suddenly the Tigers' miserable fate appears sealed.
That explains the level of dejection in the Clemson locker room after its 67-66, come-from-ahead loss to fellow bubble dweller Florida State. Assistant coaches and support staff buried their faces in their hands. All players' eyes were focused on the floor. Voices were hushed.
You lose 10 of your last 14 games. You plummet from No. 1 in the RPI in December to likely out of the top 40 today. You stand a chance of being the first BCS conference team ever to miss the NCAAs after a 17-0 start.
You start to consider moving off campus and into a cave.
"This game was huge," said senior guard Vernon Hamilton, who is holding out slim hope of playing just one NCAA Tournament game in his solid college career. "We've had some tough games in the past, but none as big as this one."
By general media consensus -- an admittedly dangerous thing -- this was an NCAA elimination game. The winner wasn't necessarily going to be in, but the loser definitely appeared out.
The Tigers were up 66-61 and had the ball as the game entered its final tenth. They were wearing out the Seminoles inside, beating them on the glass and frustrating splendid forward Al Thornton at the offensive end.
All they had to do was finish, against an FSU team they already had beaten twice.
Turns out that's easier said than done for a team that came to Tampa with six of its nine losses by five points or less. Make it seven of 10 now for Team Panic Attack.
How did this latest fold-up come to pass? Start with that possession up five, less than four to play.
Forward James Mays took a pass in the post and moved confidently to the basket for a hoop that would put Clemson up seven and really tighten the screws on the Seminoles. But he missed the short bank shot under some duress, battled for the rebound close to the baseline and saved it backward toward a gaggle of players.
The ball went right into the hands of FSU point guard Toney Douglas, as it turned out. Bad break.
Douglas hustled the ball to the other end and wound up with an open look at a 3-pointer from the wing, which he swished. Bad defense.
"I was coming down in transition one-on-three, basically," Douglas said. "All three defenders were under the basket and I was wide open, so I shot the ball."
After a couple of flailing possessions befitting a pair of NIT teams, Thornton made his second explosive play in the clutch. He flashed down the baseline and dunked with 1:37 left to tie the game, immediately shifting the pressure the other direction.
Clemson clearly felt it, turning the ball over on its next two trips -- a charge and then, after a brain-dead FSU possession, an equally brain-dead over-and-back violation. With a chance to hold for the last shot, Cliff Hammonds fumbled a less-than-ideal pass into the backcourt and gave the final possession to the Noles.
"I guess I took my eyes off the ball or something," Hammonds said.
Then, at last, came the bad call. As everyone in the St. Pete Times Forum suspected, Thornton got the ball -- on the wing, with his teammates aligned in a triple screen. But Thornton drove to the paint amid some contact, pump-faked and put up a falling-down shot that was easily blocked with 1.5 seconds left -- seemingly setting up overtime.
Except for that whistling sound. Foul, on K.C. Rivers.
"To have that call," Mays said, "it was heartbreaking, really."
Thornton momentarily mended Clemson's hearts by banging the first foul shot off the back rim.
"I was kind of nervous up there," said Thornton, whose 25 points and 11 rebounds looked like the work of a June lottery pick. "I've never been there, never been in that situation before. I was able to shoot the second one very relaxed and shot it with confidence.
"I knew it was a shot I had to make, so I had to calm down and relax."
Afterward, Thornton was relaxed and happy enough to acknowledge his pleasant surprise at getting that call.
"I thought we were going to overtime," he said. "The referees were letting us play, there was a lot of physical play. Really, I was shocked I did get that call."
No more shocked than the Tigers, who lost at the buzzer at Duke in January after a timekeeping error gave the Blue Devils 2½ seconds more than they should have had to get off the winning shot. Combine the two we-was-robbed losses with all the well-earned operator-error defeats and you have a team has been bitten by an anaconda.
In a measure of Clemson's tenuous bubble position, the school's sports information department produced an orange, one-page spin document labeled "Clemson Résumé 2006-07." It enumerates everything positive the Tigers accomplished while conveniently leaving out the negative.
When you have to campaign your way into NCAA Tournament consideration, you're in trouble.
"We're going to keep our fingers crossed," Hamilton said, thinking ahead to Selection Sunday. "But it's definitely going to be a long rest of the week."
My advice to the Tigers: Don't even bother watching the selection show. You've already suffered enough during this time-lapse collapse.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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