A Clemson team that had found ways to overcome adversity all year ran into a little bit too much in the Sweet 16 on Friday night.
The Tigers fell behind by 20 points in the second half against Kansas and mounted a furious rally before falling 80-76 at the CenturyLink Center in Omaha, Neb.
Gabe DeVoe poured in a career-high and game-high 31 points for the Tigers, who have been playing without their best player — Donte Grantham — since January, but it was not enough as Clemson’s historic season came to a disappointing end.
The Tigers finish the year with a mark of 25-10, tying a program record for victories in a season. This was just Clemson's fourth Sweet 16 appearance.
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“Proud of our kids. I thought our kids competed. We didn't have our best game and, sometimes, that's not easy to keep fighting like that, but our guys took it to the wire,” Tigers coach Brad Brownell said. “If we just made one or two more plays, we might have had a chance to tie this thing. Just been an unbelievable pleasure to coach these guys. They've been tremendous all season.”
Kansas led by 13 points at halftime and pushed its lead to 20 with a 9-2 run to start the second half.
The Tigers still trailed 68-50 with 7:28 remaining and it appeared as though Kansas was going to cruise to a comfortable victory before DeVoe and company heated up.
DeVoe made a 3-pointer at the 7:11 mark to cut the lead to 13, and David Skara made a layup with 3:17 left to pull Clemson within nine and single digits for the first time since the first half.
A Shelton Mitchell steal and dunk pulled Clemson to within 74-68 with 2:27 remaining, and there was a buzz in the arena as a game that had appeared all but over moments earlier was suddenly in doubt.
“We were just fighting, trying to make anything happen,” Mitchell said. “They made a bad pass and I got a steal … We had a chance to win right then and there.”
But Clemson was unable to secure a rebound on Kansas’ ensuing possession, and DeVoe’s 3-pointer that would have cut the lead to four with 1:08 remaining was off the mark.
The Tigers pulled to within four twice in the final 14 seconds but would get no closer.
“We just got into too big of a hole in the first half," Mitchell said. "We didn’t get any stops. A lot of guys missed a lot of easy shots that we’ve made in the past."
While Clemson had chances to earn a win late, the first 20 minutes doomed the Tigers.
Five days after everything seemed to go right for Clemson in a 31-point victory against Auburn in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, it was Kansas that couldn’t miss early as the Jayhawks built a 13-point halftime lead and never trailed.
The crisp offense, sharp shooting and go-easy attitude that Clemson displayed throughout the opening two rounds was nowhere to be found for the first 20 minutes of the game as the Tigers turned the ball over eight times in the first half.
“We just seemed a little bit out of sorts, struggled on the glass early, and I think that was a big problem,” Brownell said. “And then for whatever reason, maybe a little bit of nerves, I don't know, but we turned the ball over. And you're going to struggle when you don't rebound well and you turn it over on offense.”
Marcquise Reed added 13 points and four rebounds for Clemson before fouling out in the final minutes, while Mitchell finished with 12 points, three rebounds and a pair of assists.
The Jayhawks had a balanced scoring attack with Vick Lagerald, Devonte’ Graham and Malik Newman combining for nine 3-pointers and Udoka Azubuike taking up space and scoring 14 points, with 11 rebounds.
Kansas shot 45.5 percent from 3-point range and Newman (17), Graham (16), Azubuke (14) and Vick (13) all finished in double figures.
“We're very excited and ecstatic that we were able to win a Sweet 16 game. I thought for 30 minutes we played very well … We just kind of played not to lose down the stretch and allowed them to put some pressure on us,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “They say this time of year is survive and advance, and we were able to do that. And certainly very happy about getting a chance to play in the biggest game of our season thus far Sunday.”
Kansas will play the winner of Duke and Syracuse on Sunday for an opportunity to advance to the Final Four.
Skara 3-5 1-5 7, Thomas 2-7 0-0 4, Reed 6-15 0-0 13, DeVoe 10-17 8-9 31, Mitchell 3-13 5-5 12, Simms 1-2 0-0 2, Donnal 3-5 0-0 7, Oliver 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 28-65 14-19 76.
Azubuike 7-9 0-2 14, Mykhailiuk 4-11 0-0 9, Graham 4-12 6-7 16, Vick 4-11 2-3 13, Newman 6-11 1-2 17, Lightfoot 0-0 0-0 0, De Sousa 3-4 3-4 9, Garrett 0-2 2-4 2. Totals 28-60 14-22 80.
Halftime_Kansas 40-27. 3-Point Goals_Clemson 6-20 (DeVoe 3-9, Reed 1-2, Donnal 1-3, Mitchell 1-4, Oliver 0-1, Skara 0-1), Kansas 10-22 (Newman 4-7, Vick 3-6, Graham 2-5, Mykhailiuk 1-4). Fouled Out_Azubuike, Reed. Rebounds_Clemson 35 (DeVoe 9), Kansas 37 (Azubuike 11). Assists_Clemson 11 (DeVoe 3), Kansas 14 (Mykhailiuk, Graham 4). Total Fouls_Clemson 18, Kansas 22.