Clemson 89, Mississippi 68

CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) -- If there were any doubts left about Clemson's NIT desire, the Tigers put them to rest Monday night.

Freshman Trevor Booker had a career-high 21 point, Cliff Hammonds added 18 and the Tigers won their eighth straight NIT home game, 89-68, over Mississppi.

"When you're this deep into it, the key we thought was 'Who wants to keep playing?" Mississippi coach Andy Kennedy said. "I think Clemson answered that emphatically."

The Tigers had hoped for a better fate than the NIT, particularly when they were the last undefeated team in the country, going 17-0 before losing. But a 4-10 finish took them out of NCAA tournament contention.

And the Tigers played like a group eager to end a forgettable year in last Wednesday's NIT opener, needing a late surge to slip past East Tennessee State.

Something happened since then to wake up the sleeping Tigers.

"The guys really wanted to come out and play," Clemson forward James Mays said.

Tiger coach Oliver Purnell said his players have gradually shown increased desire. "Every day, every practice, we've gotten a little better," he said.

Clemson, the South region's No. 1 seed, gets the chance to extend its Littlejohn Coliseum winning streak -- which coincidentally began after an Ole Miss victory here in the 1982 NIT -- when it takes on Syracuse in the most Orange of tournament quarterfinals on Wednesday night.

Syracuse beat San Diego State 80-64 earlier Monday.

The Tigers (23-10) also improved to 4-0 this season against the Southeastern Conference. They defeated Mississippi State, South Carolina and Georgia during the regular season.

Hammonds, who scored all his points in the opening half, had two critical 3-pointers as Clemson closed the period with a 12-1 run.

Booker had 15 of his points in the second half when the Tigers extended their lead to as many as 19.

Mississippi, the SEC's West champion, ended its first season under coach Andy Kennedy at 21-13. The Rebels were trying to extend their first postseason appearance since 2002. But their high-scoring backcourt of Clarence Sanders and Bam Doyne managed only 18 points, 13 fewer than their combined averages.

Ole Miss couldn't handle Clemson's defensive pressure. The Tigers forced 24 turnovers, more than double the Rebels' season average.

"They overwhelmed us," Kennedy said.

Todd Abernethy led Mississippi with 18 points.

Booker began the season strongly, looking like one of the Atlantic Coast Conference's top rookies during the Tigers opening streak of success.

Then he staggered a bit with the grind of top league opponents, going through a six-game midseason stretch where he cracked double figure points once. He kept working through his problems until his game again picked up. He's had 10 points or more in eight of last nine games.

"I feel more confident," Booker said. "I've got a lot more games under my belt and that helps."

It was Clemson's largest postseason margin of victory, surpassing a 77-57 victory over Georgia and an 89-69 win over Butler, both in the 1999 NIT.

Kentucky coach Tubby Smith, whose Wildcats fell to Kansas in the NCAA tournament Sunday, traveled from Chicago to Littlejohn to pull for son Brian and his Rebels teammates.

But there wasn't much for Smith or Ole Miss to cheer about at halftime.

When Sanders hit a 3-pointer and backed down the much-taller Raymond Sykes for a jam, Mississippi was ahead 31-29. A minute later, Todd Abernathy made a 3-pointer as his club took its last lead, 34-32 with 4:02 remaining.

That's when Clemson took control, finishing the half with a 14-1 run.

James Mays put the Tigers ahead to stay with an inside basket and Hammonds hit two straight 3-pointers. Mays finished the half with a soaring jam that put Clemson up 46-35.

Mississippi did not hit another field goal until Rodney Jones' follow shot with 17:06 to go, a span of nearly 7 minutes spanning the halves.

If Clemson can sustain this intensity, Booker says it'll show his team deserved to the chance to dance on a bigger tournament stage.

"We want to get to the championship and, hopefully, win it all," Booker said. "If we win it all, it'll prove we belonged in the NCAA" tournament.