CLEMSON — As the last of Clemson’s three seniors to address the crowd after Tuesday’s game, guard K.C. Rivers told fans to remain on the bandwagon.
The best is yet to come, Rivers said, predicting these Tigers would trump last year’s team and go beyond the first round of the NCAA tournament.
For a half, it shaped up to be a forgettable final home for Clemson’s seniors — the type of sloppy, lethargic performance that could trigger another late-season slide.
The 18th-ranked Tigers might not have righted many of their issues in the final half of Tuesday’s 75-57 blistering of listless Virginia, but they gave their seniors a good send-off while keeping their recent struggles from getting worse.
“This game puts us back on track,” junior forward Trevor Booker said.
At least, the victory puts Clemson back in the race for one of the coveted top four spots in the ACC standings — and the accompanying bye in the first-round of next week’s conference tournament.
Booker had 13 points and 15 rebounds as Clemson (23-6, 9-6 ACC) climbed back into a tie for fourth with Florida State, which fell 84-81 at Duke.
Sophomore guard Terrence Oglesby went a perfect 10-for-10 from the foul line to net a team-high 18 points, while senior center Raymond Sykes rose to the occasion to score 14 points — his career-high in a conference game.
The Tigers must prevail Sunday at third-place Wake Forest in order to have a chance at a top-four finish, although their fate might be sealed after FSU’s home game earlier that day against Virginia Tech.
The Seminoles must lose because they hold the two-way tiebreaker over the Tigers, and a three-way tie that includes Wake (if all are 10-6) eliminates Clemson.
In addition to the ACC race, coach Oliver Purnell said Tuesday’s victory was huge for the team’s morale.
The Tigers had lost four of their previous seven and two in a row. And a second stumble to the Cavaliers (9-17, 3-12) — locked in next-to-last place and losers of four in a row — would have marked Clemson’s first three-game skid since the infamous 2007 collapse.
“You don’t want to lose three in a row because it can play with your mind, especially when you’ve never had that happen to your team before,” Purnell said.
“That’s what I was concerned about. Certainly, I think this team was resilient and could have dealt with it, but I didn’t want to go there.”
Virginia held a 32-31 lead in the opening seconds of the second half before Clemson seized control with a 19-2 run over the next eight minutes.
Purnell urged his guards to penetrate and attack more, and the approach yielded dunk after dunk for the Tigers’ big men.
The offensively-challenged Cavaliers couldn’t keep pace, shooting 28.6 percent in the second half while losing the rebounding edge.
Furthermore, leading scorer Sylven Landesberg — frontrunner for the ACC’s freshman of the year award — was stifled by Clemson wings Rivers and David Potter.
Landesberg, who scored 23 points in Virginia’s 85-81 overtime upset of Clemson last month, went 0-for-6 from the field before he scored on a free throw with 3:50 to go and finished with three points.
“You’re going to lose some,” Rivers said. “But it all comes down to playoff time. When it’s time to buckle down, this team will be ready.”