Clemson downs Illinois basketball in NIT second round

By Scott Adamson

CLEMSON, N.C. — A boisterous, capacity crowd of 10,000 gave the Clemson Tigers a “sixth man” against Illinois on Sunday in the second round of the National Invitation Tournament.

The five guys on the court deeply appreciated the help, especially at the end.

Illinois took its only lead of the game 2:05 from the finish when Jon Ekey nailed a three to make it 49-48, but a Ron Hall layup with nine seconds showing on the clock lifted the Tigers to a heart-stopping 50-49 victory at Littlejohn Coliseum.

There was no foul called — but it didn’t matter since the shot fell for Hall.

Illinois (20-15, 7-11 Big Ten) had a chance to win it at the end, but Tracy Abrams’ 3-point try with three seconds left fell short.

Clemson (22-12, 10-8 ACC) then inbounded the ball with just over a second left, and that was it.

“We had them a couple of times where our fans were into the game and Illinois would come up with a play,” Tigers head coach Brad Brownell said. “But we really played well the last three or four plays of the game. And I really have to thank our fans. Seeing 10,000 folks … I had goose bumps on my neck to see that kind of support for our program.”

It was a defensive showcase from wire to wire, with Clemson getting just two offense rebounds to 30 on defense and the Illini managing 25 in all and just five on the offensive end.

But Clemson, playing without forward Jaron Blossomgame who was sidelined with a leg injury, ended up hitting 48.8 percent of its shots to 37.5 for Illinois — and made big plays when big plays needed to be made.

K.J. McDaniels led Clemson with 12 points. Landry Nnoko finished with 11 points and eight rebounds for the Tigers, while Jordan Roper added 10 points.

Rayvonte Rice had 15 points to pace Illinois and Ekey scored 11. The Illini were 3-of-21 from 3-point range.

“Half the 3-pointers we took, Clemson did a great job defending,” Illinois head coach John Groce said. “But the other half (the defense) wasn’t even in the same zip code. If we just go 7-of-27 we have a chance.”

The Tigers set the tone early and, except for being tied at 4-4, had command of the Illini for the first 20 minutes.

A Nnoko free throw and Sidy Djitte jumper bookended a 7-0 run that gave the Tigers an 11-4 lead, and after Illinois cut its deficit to 18-14, Roper drained the first 3-poiinter of the day to make it 21-14.

Brownell’s team saved its largest lead for the end of the opening half when Austin Ajukwa canned a trey to give the hosts a 28-19 edge and the raucous crowd even more reason to cheer.

Clemson kept Illinois at arm’s length for most of the second half until the Illini’s late run.

The one time Clemson gave up the lead at the 2:05 juncture, however, was also the last time the Tigers allowed the Illini to score.

Now Brownell and company turn their attention to Belmont (26-9), a team that also wants to spend April in New York at the NIT Final Four. For Illinois, the 2013-14 season comes to an end.