CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) -- Akin Akingbala knew someone had to fill
Clemson's hole in the middle this year. He worked hard to make sure
he would be the one to get that chance.
Akingbala continued his surging play Wednesday night with 16
points and 11 rebounds to lead Clemson past Louisiana Tech 69-53 in
the first round of the NIT.
The Tigers (19-12) came into the season without all-Atlantic
Coast Conference forward Sharrod Ford. Even coach Oliver Purnell
planned on using a three-man rotation that included Akingbala.
Instead, Akingbala worked on his strength, conditioning and
"Sharrod Ford did a lot for us, he played great for Clemson.
But we knew we couldn't cry about the fact we're losing a good
player. Somebody had to step it up," Akingbala said. "I did a
little work during the summer and I think that proved crucial."
The results are obvious. Akingbala had his fourth straight game
-- and seventh in the last 10 -- with double figure points and
Akingbala says he's become more aggressive as a nagging sternum
injury lessened. The injury also kept him from reaching peak
condition through much of the early part of the season. "I feel
like I can go harder out there now," he said.
That was case against Louisiana Tech (20-13).
Akingbala's performance helped the Tigers to their first
postseason victory outside the Atlantic Conference tournament since
the 1998-99 team lost in the NIT final to California. Clemson will
face the winner of Friday's first-round game between Louisville and
Akingbala came into his final season averaging under 5 points
and three rebounds at Clemson. He has doubled each of those numbers
to 11.8 points and 8.1 rebounds this season.
"He's made a commitment, no question about it," Clemson coach
Oliver Purnell said. "He worked on a number of things and came
back a different player."
Louisiana Tech's slow start in its first NIT game in four years
made things much easier for Akingbala and the Tigers.
The Bulldogs opened 1-of-9 from the field and had nine turnovers
to fall behind 12-4. They had no answer on the inside for
Akingbala, a senior who broke his career high in scoring twice in
the previous three games.
Akingbala scored Clemson's first five points, then had two
baskets and a foul shot to push the lead to 26-15. He kept things
up after the break, his consecutive baskets putting the Tigers
Akingbala was also key in slowing down Tech star Paul Millsap,
who led the team coming with 19.7 points and 13.4 rebounds a game.
Like the rest of his team, Millsap struggled. He scored nine of
the Bulldogs' first 10 points, but was called for his third foul
with about eight minutes left in the half. Louisiana Tech couldn't
find any offense and was held to one basket the rest of the way and
their lowest first-half total this season trailing 30-16.
"This is a team that needs Paul on the floor to score,"
Louisiana Tech coach Keith Richard said.
Things continued Clemson's way much of the second half, with the
lead growing to 18 points.
Then it was the Tigers' turn to go cold. Louisiana Tech went on
an 12-2 run. When Millsap tipped in a miss by Daevon Haskins,
Clemson's lead was down to 51-43.
Vernon Hamilton, however, made four straight free throws to
regain control for the Tigers, who made 14 straight from the line
to blunt the Bulldogs' comeback.
Hamilton hit 10 of 12 foul shots, all in the second half, to
finish with 14 points. Cliff Hammonds also had 14 points for the
Millsap led Louisiana Tech with 19 points and nine rebounds.
Millsap's rebounds locked up his third straight national title,
according to Bulldogs coach Richard.
The big question now is whether Millsap, a junior, will stay
around to get a fourth. Richard says Millsap is considering the NBA
draft. "We've got two, three months to talk with him and figure
that out," Richard said.