CLEMSON — , S.C. Clemson's K.J. McDaniels was ready for the postseason, even it wasn't the tournament he had hoped for last Sunday.
McDaniels matched his career high with 30 points and the Tigers put aside their disappointment at missing the NCAAs to win their 10th straight NIT game at home with a 78-66 win over Sun Belt Conference champs Georgia State.
The Tigers, like long-shot bubble teams around the country, watched the NCAA brackets announced last weekend and prayed they'd make the field of 68. When they didn't, McDaniels says Clemson's players quickly refocused and set their sights on advancing as far as they could in the NIT.
“We knew we had to go out there and just fight and prove that we wanted to be in it,” McDaniels said.
And if they keep playing at home, there's a strong chance the Tigers will keep moving on. Their tournament home win streak dates back to 1986 and they'll get at least one more chance to play again at Littlejohn Coliseum in the second round against either Illinois or Boston U., who play Wednesday night.
Clemson coach Brad Brownell didn't worry much about his team's attitude. After all, the Tigers had missed the postseason the past two years and were eager for more competition.
“That's pretty good to be ready for this and approach it the way they did,” Brownell said. “You could tell that your team wanted to be in this tournament, wanted to play and wanted to win.”
It helps when McDaniels, the junior nicknamed “Flight32” is soaring like he does.
This was the 29th game McDaniels has hit for double figures, 13 of those with 20 or more. He matched his previous best set in a double-overtime loss at Notre Dame last month.
Georgia State (25-9) came in having won Sun Belt regular-season crown and 22 of its past 24 games. But like other Clemson opponents, the Panthers couldn't ground McDaniels, who broke loose for several jams and picked the ball from Ryan Harrow's hands as Georgia State's guard went in for layup with 2:50 left that drew oohs from the crowd.
“I'm sure some of the teams that don't play him as often, you're surprised because all of a sudden you think you've got a layup and he comes over and pins it on the glass,” Brownell said. “I've seen a lot of it.”
Georgia State trailed 50-49 on Ryan Harrow's basket with 12:03 left. Then Clemson took off on a 22-10 run to take control.
R.J. Hunter, Sun Belt player of the year, led five Panthers in double figures with 15 points.
Damarcus Harrison had 17 points and Jordan Roper 11 for Clemson. McDaniels also had five of the Tigers' nine blocked shots.
The Panthers' high-scoring backcourt of Hunter and Ryan Harrow struggled against Clemson's defense. Hunter shot 4 for 16. Harrow, who had a career-high 37 last time out, was 5 of 16 from the field for 13 points.
Georgia State coach Ron Hunter said he worried about fatigue from his players who went overtime Sunday in losing the Sun Belt tournament finals to Louisiana-Lafayette and used Tuesday's shoot-around to game plan.
“I told our staff I thought we were getting a little fatigued. We just played the other night,” Hunter said. “I saw the fatigue coming and I was using timeouts more to rest than to strategize.”
Clemson and Georgia State had hoped to keep playing in the NCAA tournament instead of the NIT.
The Tigers chances ended when they squandered a five-point lead in the closing seconds of regulation before falling to Pittsburgh here in overtime on March 8. Clemson led Duke in the closing seconds of the ACC tournament quarterfinals a week later before losing 63-62.
For the Panthers, this was their second NIT appearance – first since 2002 when they fell to Tennessee Tech. They had a difficult task in this one with Clemson on a nine-game home NIT win streak that included three victories here in 2007 – the Tigers last NIT – on the way to a tournament finals loss to West Virginia at Madison Square Garden.