Morris: Experience shines for Tigers

Posted by Ron Morris on November 17, 2013 

Ron Morris


— Sunday's early season rivalry game was supposed to be a look-see at whether South Carolina or Clemson had the better group of up-and-coming players this basketball season.

Instead, we learned that Brad Brownell has three seasoned players on his Clemson team, and Frank Martin can call on one player with any kind of experience.

That edge in know-how proved to be the difference in Clemson’s 71-57 victory at Littlejohn Coliseum.

“Today, we played a team that is disciplined with guys that have been in Brad’s system for a year, two, three,” Martin said. “They understand how they’re playing, and they’re playing a lot better than we are at this point and time in the season. Credit to them, they outplayed us.”

These are two of the more youthful teams in the country. USC guard Brenton Williams is the only senior on either roster. The two teams rosters feature 11 freshmen, seven on the Gamecocks.

For Sunday’s game, Clemson looked like a group of greybeards compared to USC. The Tigers started three juniors, one sophomore and a freshman. USC countered with one junior, one sophomore and three newcomers.

Where that age difference showed most for Clemson was on the defensive end, in the Tigers’ backcourt and in having an emerging star in junior K.J. McDaniels.

In four seasons at the helm, Brownell has established Clemson as being at the same lofty level as Duke among ACC teams when it comes to defense. The Tigers are relentless in their half-court pressure.

“That’s our identity, to play hard-nosed defense and get stops,” sophomore and former Irmo star Jordan Roper said. “You don’t get on the court unless you’re defensively sound.”

Clemson’s defense gave USC few open looks at the basket. The Gamecocks shot 35.4 percent from the floor and made a lone 3-point field goal in 10 attempts. Had it not been for USC’s aggressive play on the offensive boards — 21 rebounds there that resulted in 15 points — its offense would have been stagnant.

On the other end of the court, Clemson junior point guard Rod Hall controlled the action. Recognizing that USC closes the passing lanes, Hall consistently drove to the basket where he either scored (three field goals), was fouled (eight of nine free throws) or passed (four assists) for easy baskets. In 32 minutes, he had one turnover.

His sidekick, Roper, also found lanes to the basket and made all eight of his free-throw attempts to finish with 15 points. He had four assists and did not turn the ball over in 30 minutes.

“Our guards are more relaxed, more comfortable and more confident players because they’ve been through the battles for a couple of years,” Brownell said “Last year, in these tense situations, we looked nervous at times. ... This year, we’re a little more relaxed on the perimeter.”

Then there was McDaniels.

“It’s time in his career to be a high-level player, and he performed at a high level tonight,” Brownell said. “He always makes the highlight plays with the blocks and dunks and things of that nature.

“His skill level has improved tremendously with his shooting, his ability to drive it and attack some close-outs. Those weren’t really things he came here with the ability to do.”

He displayed it all Sunday with high-flying dunks, shots from the perimeter and drives to the basket. He finished with 21 points, 10 rebounds and seven blocked shots. Then, when USC edged within a point with 13 minutes remaining, the best player on the court took charge.

McDaniels scored seven of Clemson’s points during a 10-1 run that featured a pair of spectacular dunks, and the game’s outcome had been decided.

McDaniels, like Hall and Roper, had been through these kind of games over the past couple seasons. They knew what to expect and how to react.

Martin’s team will get to that point, but it might take all season for his youthful troops to get there.

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