Clemson long has been known as a football school.
But two weeks into league play, the men’s basketball program finds itself milling with the league’s elite.
Picked to finish 14th in the 15-team ACC by the league’s media, the Tigers moved into the upper quadrant of the league’s standings, getting 14 points from K.J. McDaniels to propel them to a 56-49 win against Virginia Tech on Wednesday.
Clemson (12-4, 3-1 ACC), which upset No. 23 Duke 72-59 at home on Saturday, rallied from a 36-30 deficit with 14 minutes left to record its second road win of the season. The Tigers, who beat Boston College on Jan. 4 in their ACC opener, have recorded back-to-back road wins in ACC play for the 11th time in their 61 years in the ACC.
At the end of the night, the Tigers found themselves in a tie for third place behind Syracuse and Pittsburgh in the league standings.
“I don’t worry about any of those things,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said. “I just try to do a good job building our team and our program and getting our guys to believe in each other and what we’re doing as a program — our system and our style.
“We had a lot of question marks (coming into this season). We lost our two leading scorers and our two best players, but we did have a young group that had been together. This group has worked really hard, and they care about each other and what we’re doing as a program. Timing pays off. The league is really hard, and we know that. We’re going to keep grinding and keep trying to get better and see what happens.”
The offensively challenged Tigers avoided a letdown following their Duke win by doing what they do best — playing defense. Clemson leads the nation in scoring defense (53.9 ppg) and ranks second nationally in field-goal percentage defense (35.9 percent), and the Tigers held the Hokies without a point in the final 2:01 of the game.
Virginia Tech (8-8, 1-3) had its biggest lead after point guard Devin Wilson hit the second of two free throws to give the Hokies a 36-30 lead with 14:01 remaining. But the Tigers responded by scoring the next 10 points. Damarcus Harrison and Adonis Filer hit 3-pointers in the run, as Clemson reclaimed the lead for good.
Clemson’s spurt ended up being a 16-4 run that ended when Jaron Blossomgame hit the second of two free throws that gave the Tigers a 46-40 lead with 6:37 left — their biggest lead of the game.
Clemson led 49-43 after McDaniels hit his lone 3-pointer of the night with 4:09 to go, but the Hokies scored six consecutive points, tying the game on Ben Emelogu’s 3-pointer with 2:01 left. Those were the Hokies’ final points.
Filer broke the tie for the Tigers, driving to the basket and hitting a layup while getting fouled. He made the free throw, to give Clemson a 52-49 lead. Filer scored nine points off the bench, while Harrison scored seven.
“I had confidence in us,” Filer said. “I knew we were going to win the whole time. Even after he (Emelogu) hit that 3, I knew we were going to come back with something better.
“We had to get stops. We had to lock in defensively. Our identity is being a defensive team, so we had to get stops and let our defense carry our offense.”
On their final four possessions, the Hokies missed three shots and two free throws, while the Tigers connected on 5 of 6 from the free-throw line to seal the game.
The Hokies got 14 points from Wilson and 11 each from Emelogu and Joey van Zegeren. Virginia Tech shot 41.7 percent against Clemson’s defense, but the Hokies hurt themselves by making 4 of 14 from the free-throw line.
Virginia Tech has lost five of its past six games and hasn’t scored 60 points in any of the five losses. The Hokies’ leading scorer, Jarell Eddie, scored three points — on 1 of 6 shooting — against the Tigers.
“We’ve just got to relax and play on offense,” Virginia Tech James Johnson said. “We’ve got to find a way to get the upperclassmen going. We’ve got to find a way to get Eddie to put the ball in the hole. If Emelogu and Wilson can play like they’ve been playing, we’ll take that. We’ve just got to find a way to get Eddie to put the ball in the hole. “
“We’re practicing hard, and we’re playing hard. We’re competing. Part of it is youth. We’re counting on Emelogu and Wilson to do a lot, and when you do that in this league, in any league, it’s tough.They’re having to carry the team, and that’s tough for a couple of freshmen to do.”
Rod Hall scored 11 points for the Tigers, who shot just 40.4 percent from the floor (19 of 47). Yet thanks to their defense, it was enough on this night.
“Coach kept saying that we needed to validate that beating Duke wasn’t a fluke,” Filer said. “So we needed to come up here and get a win and let them know we were for real. This year is a different year.”