If the 2019-2020 Clemson men’s basketball season had to be summed up in one word it would be baffling. Clemson recorded several major wins on the year, however, the Tigers also dropped several games along the way which would have kept head coach Brad Brownell’s squad from the Big Dance.
While nobody knows what could have come out of the canceled 2020 ACC tournament, Clemson was playing better basketball in the home stretch of the regular season.
In the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy Gale told us “there’s no place like home” and Littlejohn Coliseum proved to a buzz saw for top-10 visitors during Clemson’s 2019-2020 basketball season.
The Tigers defeated No. 3 Duke, No. 5 Louisville, No. 6 Florida State and North Carolina State inside the friendly confines of Littlejohn Coliseum. But bigger than any upset ACC victory at home was the win in Chapel Hill against the Tar Heels, snapping a 59-game losing streak at UNC and giving Clemson its’ first-ever win on UNC's home court.
Clemson 81, N.C. State 70
The Tigers entered the game against the Wolfpack having dropped six of its last seven contests with the Wolfpack with the lone victory coming against Jacksonville. The outlook on the game wasn’t the brightest as it started off a three-game stretch which would include a road trip to a struggling North Carolina squad prior to hosting No. 3 Duke at home.
Little did anyone know, arguably the best three-game stretch in program history was about to commence right before their eyes.
It didn’t come easy, though. It appeared the Tigers were on pace to once again blow a conference tilt in which it led in the second half after N.C. State shaved a 14-point deficit to one with just under 12 minutes remaining in regulation.
This time around though, the Tigers found a way to get the job done answering big baskets by the Wolfpack with points of their own. When N.C. State cut the lead to 71-65 it was with two minutes remaining, Aamir Simms' bucket slowed down the momentum. His key offensive rebound gave way to a Tevin Mack bucket to extend the lead back to double figures, 75-65. Al-Amir Dawes sank four consecutive free throws down the stretch to slam the door shut on the visitors from Raleigh.
Simms led all scorers with 17 points, four rebounds and five assists. Dawes pitched in 16 point while Mack and Curran Smith tallied 14 each. Clemson was clutch at the charity stripe shooting 26-of-31 for a mark of 83.9 percent.
Clemson 79, North Carolina 76
Prior to Jan. 11, 2020, Clemson men’s basketball had never left the court in Chapel Hill as a winner. A 59-game drought finally came to an end this season in what quite frankly was the biggest win of the season. Sure, the Tar Heels were far from the top-10 squad college basketball fans are accustomed to. But for this program, it was still an enormous victory.
It was only fitting that not only did the game come down to the wire, but it also marked Brad Brownell’s 177th win as the head coach of the Tigers and tied the record set by Cliff Ellis for most wins all-time for a Clemson head coach.
The Tigers rallied late and Aamir Simms responded to a pair of made free throws by UNC’s Brandon Robinson with 12 seconds remaining by draining a three-pointer to knot the score 70-70 with three seconds left to force overtime. While Simms and the Tigers deserve all the credit for making the play, it was fair to question why head coach Roy Williams didn’t elect to foul in the situation. He was forced to answer for the decision during his postgame gathering with the media.
In overtime, the Tigers simply wouldn’t be denied and outscored the Tar Heels 9-6 and Robinson’s prayer at the buzzer went unanswered as you could nearly feel the gushing air from the sigh of relief from Brownell all the way back in Clemson.
"We're certainly glad to have it past us and not be asked about it anymore and we can move on to other things that we need to accomplish in our program,” Brownell said in his postgame comments.
The win pushed the Tigers to 8-7 overall and 2-3 in league play. Robinson posted a game-high 27 points in the game while the Tigers were led by Simms, who notched 20 for Clemson.
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It was a relatively even match statistically with both teams. Clemson was 29-of-67 on field goals for 43.3 percent while the Tar Heels weren’t far behind at 28-of-66 for 42.4 percent. UNC held the advantage from the line connecting on 14-of-20 attempts for an even 70 percent while Clemson managed 9-of-13 for 69.2 percent. Both squads finished with 39 rebounds and UNC was +1 (11-10) in the turnover margin.
Clemson 79, No. 3 Duke 72
It would have been easy to suffer the typical letdown following such a historical win at North Carolina just three nights prior but instead Clemson rode that momentum wave to a stunning victory over Duke in Littlejohn.
The night was a special one for many reasons transcribing some new lines in the history books. The victory over the third-ranked Blue Devils was the biggest upset in Littlejohn since Clemson’s 75-65 triumph over North Carolina in 2001.
It marked the first time since 1995-1996 in which the Tiger defeated Duke and North Carolina in the same season. The win also gave Brownell his 178th career victory to move him into first place for all-time wins in Clemson basketball.
Clemson never allowed the Blue Devils much breathing room. Duke pulled ahead 4-0 moments after the opening tip but would never widen the gap any further the rest of the way while the Tigers held the lead for 28 minutes of regulation.
The Tigers kept the pressure on Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s crew from the opening tip to the final buzzer, matching the Blue Devils in nearly every statistical category. Both teams shot 50 percent from the free-throw line and connected on eight three-pointers each.
Clemson shot slightly better from the floor at 56.6 percent over Duke’s 50 percent on the night. The Tigers led by as many as eight points down the stretch, earning a 78-70 advantage on a John Newman layup with 24 seconds remaining.
Simms was again the hot hand for the Tigers with 25 points and nine rebounds while Mack scored 22 on the night with nine boards himself. John Newman III tallied 14 points and four steals in the win.
Clemson 77, No. 5 Louisville 62
After dropping the road trip to Louisville 80-62 on Jan. 25, Clemson delivered a little payback on its home court three weeks later. The win was yet another historical marker for the program, giving Clemson two wins over AP top-5 teams for the first time since 1975-1976.
Newman led the way for Clemson with a career-high 23 points, including a perfect seven-of-seven from the free-throw line. The Tigers shot the ball (51 percent) considerably better than the visiting Cardinals (34.8 percent) and cashed in the off night.
Clemson carried a 31-14 lead into the intermission and never looked back upon returning to the floor in second-half action. Louisville trailed by as many as 21 points (40-19) five minutes into the second half. The Cardinals managed to chip away at the lead (44-34) with just under 10 minutes left but couldn’t complete the rally.
The ACC’s leading scorer at the time, Jordan Nwora, was limited to just five points while Louisville teammate Dwayne Sutton powered his way to team-best 18 points. Clemson was 9-of-23 from beyond the arc compared to Louisville’s 6-of-27 performance. The Cardinals out-rebounded the Tigers, 39-34.
Clemson 70, No. 6 Florida State 69
Clemson survived a wild finish at home on Feb. 29 defeating the sixth-ranked Seminoles, 70-69. After a Trent Forrest jump shot with nine ticks left gave Florida State the 69-68 lead, Clemson’s Dawes seized the moment, bursting down the court and shuffled pasted Forrest for the game-winning basket with just one second left.
It was a confidence-boosting win as the Tigers had to battle back to make it a contest in the second half. A 17-5 run helped ignite both the crowd and Brownell’s crew on the floor. Clemson looked like a far different team than the one that took the floor in the earlier stages of the season, trailing by as many as 10 in the game. The third top-10 victory gave Clemson three top-seven AP wins for the first time since the 1979-1980 season.
Newman and Dawes scored a game-high 18 points each to guide the Tigers while Florida State leaned on the efforts of Devin Vassell’s team-best 14 points. In a key stat of the game, Clemson forced six charges against the Seminoles which tied a record for fourth-most in a single game in program history.