By the reckoning of Clemson Coach Cliff Ellis, a season in the Atlantic Coast Conference was preparation aplenty for the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. tournament.
Could there be anything on the road to the Final Four that the Tigers hadn’t seen along Tobacco Road this season? Politely begging your pardon, Ellis and his players doubted it.
They had seen Duke and North Carolina and N.C. State. They had beaten Duke and North Carolina.
And they met Arizona Saturday.
After a 94-68 Arizona victory before a crowd of 12,428 in the second round of the NCAA West Regional at the Boise State Pavilion, they were about ready to grant the Wildcats admission to the ACC, travel arrangements be darned.
“That,” Ellis said pointedly, “is a great basketball team.”
Yes, admitted Tiger center Elden Campbell, “they would fit in real well in the league.”
Clemson (19-11) stayed with top-seeded and top-ranked Arizona (29-3) for 10 minutes, last leading at 25-23.
Then came a Wildcat strike. Arizona would score the next 15 points. And Clemson would go 9 minutes 22 seconds without a basket, committing 12 turnovers along the way--including 10 in a row.
Before Derrick Forest broke Clemson’s drought with two free throws with 1:49 left in the half, Arizona had a 39-25 lead.
That held up, meaning that Arizona was going to Denver for a West Regional semifinal game against Nevada Las Vegas Thursday, and Clemson was going back to South Carolina.
“I just like that team,” Ellis said, still shaking his head. “I don’t see any reason they can’t win it all.”
He stopped short of calling Arizona the best team he has seen all season--that kind of quote would be a yellowed clipping on ACC bulletin boards next season--but termed the game “the best performance” he has seen.
“Their pressure surprised me,” he said. “Their defense is the whole key to it.”
Clemson’s plan against Arizona centered on its own defense. The idea was to keep close tabs on Sean Elliott and Anthony Cook with a box-and-one or a triangle-and-two.
“The role players--we were going to make them beat us,” Ellis said. “Well, they did a pretty good job.”
Matt Muehlebach, at the request of Elliott and Coach Lute Olson, started shooting from outside to force Clemson to play a less fudging defense. He ended up with a career-high 19 points, including four three-pointers.
Two of them came in the game’s only crucial moments after the first 10 minutes. Early in the second half, Clemson cut the lead to four points after two three-pointers by Forrest and a dunk by Campbell.
Muehlebach lined up and knocked down back-to-back three-pointers, pushing the lead back to 10. It was never single digits again.
“What everybody calls their role players are darn good players,” Ellis said.
Jud Buechler, the other “role player” scored 15 points. Cook scored 14.
Elliott, special defense and all, had 25 points. “A quiet 25,” Ellis called it.
Trailing by nine at halftime, Clemson thought it could come back.
“We felt comfortable,” Ellis said. “We’ve been in that position a lot. Arizona simply did not let up. I want to say this. I am overly impressed with that basketball team.”
Olson did not argue.
“Anytime we go in up at the half, we feel confident,” he said. “As long as we play hard defensively, I don’t worry. We’re an offensively explosive enough team.”
Defensively, Arizona kept Campbell reasonably contained. He had 24 points, but 15 came in the second half when the issue already had been decided.
Forrest scored 21.
The crucial defensive effort belonged to Buechler, who helped hold Dale Davis to two points, 12 below his average.
The game over, Ellis reconsidered the question he had pondered since winning the first-round game Thursday: How to beat Arizona?
“That’s a good question,” he said. “They run extremely well, and you have to get back on transition defense. You have to help out on Elliott. But when you do, you have to recover on the other guys. Their inside game is awesome and they can hit from the outside.”