Tuesday night, Clemson was defeated by SMU 65-59 in the semifinals of the NIT. The loss was particularly painful for the Tigers, who finished the season with a record of 23-13, considering they led by 12 at the half and by as many as 13 in the second half. SMU was led by Markus Kennedy who had a great game with 21 points and 9 rebounds. The Mustangs also received strong performances from Nic Moore and Nick Russell, who scored 13 and 10 respectively. Rod Hall led the Tigers with one of his best games of the seasons, scoring 18 points with 5 assists. KJ McDaniels, Demarcus Harrison and Landry Nnoko also each scored in double digits.
The game started nearly perfectly for Clemson, who jumped out to a quick 10-2 lead. The Tigers’ offense looked as good as it had all season and Clemson took a 38-26 lead into the half. However, when the second half began, things quickly fell apart as SMU went on a 7-0 run early in the half, cutting the lead to 6. Over the next several minutes, the Mustangs slowed wore down Clemson and cut into their lead. The Tigers’ offensive efficiency of the first half disappeared and was replaced by stagnant ball movement and uncertainty. Though the Clemson defense did its best to hold on, SMU claimed their first lead of the game with just over 5 minutes remaining. After that, Clemson missed several great opportunities, including a pair of open three pointers, to get themselves back into the game. With about 9 seconds remaining, Rod Hall made two free throws to cut the SMU lead to one. However, on the ensuing inbound, Markus Kennedy slipped behind the Clemson press and received the pass with an open lane to the basket. Instead of allowing him to score, KJ McDaniels ran Kennedy down and attempted to block the shot, but only fouled the Mustang forward on his made layup. The following made free throw from Kennedy put the game out of reach for the Tigers.
Although it ended in a disappointing loss, this season has still been a tremendous step forward for the Clemson basketball program. KJ McDaniels developed into a first team conference player in an ACC loaded with talent. If he continues to improve going into his senior season (for which he will hopefully stay) he will easily be one of the best overall players in the nation. The Tigers also saw great strides from Demarcus Harrison, Rod Hall and Landry Nnoko.
Over the last dozen games of the season, Harrison showed incredible improvement in skill, but most of all in confidence and intelligence. He has become a player that knows when to take his shot and how to drive to the basket if it is not there. He has easily become a solid starter and will be one of Clemson’s most dangerous offensive weapons next year.
Similarly, Rod Hall has finally truly found his role in the offense. He is a physical guard who can distribute the ball, get to the basket against smaller defenders and even take outside shots if open. As far as point guards go, he has become fairly versatile and very reliable.
Other than KJ McDaniels, Clemson’s most improved player this season was Landry Nnoko. Last season, the 6’10″ forward from Cameroon looked lost on the court was used only to play defense and get boards. He has now developed into a confident and capable player who dominates the glass and has a very solid low post, offensive game. He also has incredible potential to continue his improvement. If he can continue to develop at this rate (and he should) he will be a very reliable low post presence for the Tigers next season. These players, along with promising freshmen such as Jaron Blossomgame and Austin Ajukwa, give Clemson basketball fans a lot to look forward to in 2015.