March 25, 2008
CLEMSON Oliver Purnell had a stunned, saddened look on his face as he stood outside Clemson's locker room.
He was waiting for reporters to file past before he made the short walk to the postgame press conference. He stared straight ahead, no doubt wondering how his team managed to squander an 18-point lead in a first-round NCAA Tournament loss to Villanova.
Heading into his fifth season at Clemson, Purnell said with a straight face that his team's goal was to win the national championship. Given that the Tigers hadn't even graced the NCAA Tournament since 1998, some reporters joked that maybe he was referring to the NIT crown.
He wasn't. And after Clemson secured a No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament, Purnell felt even more strongly that his team was capable of fulfilling the expectation that seemed almost outrageous just months earlier.
That helped to explain why Purnell was so shocked in the aftermath of the defeat in Tampa. He really expected to be around longer. Much longer.
"It's hard to believe that the season is over, because I just felt this team was built with its balance and all that kind of thing to make a run in the NCAA Tournament," he said. "I thought we were playing well the last three ballgames. I thought we played at a high level."
Indeed, Clemson entered the NCAA Tournament feeling great about itself. The Tigers had gone to Charlotte for the ACC Tournament and beat Boston College by 34 in the quarterfinals, tying their most lopsided ACC victory ever.
A triumph over then-No. 7 Duke in the semis was a landmark win in several respects. It snapped a 22-game losing streak at the hands of the Blue Devils. It represented just the second time in school history that the Tigers won more than one game in the ACC Tournament. And it sent a message nationally that Purnell had made Clemson relevant again.
The Tigers lost to No. 1 North Carolina in the final by five points, but they didn't have much to be ashamed of in that game. Clemson went toe-to-toe with the Tar Heels for 40 minutes, and if not for some missed free throws the Tigers missed seven of 10 at one point in the final six minutes Purnell might have given Clemson its first ACC title in the 55-year history of the conference.
The Tigers seemed like a focused team when they arrived in Tampa. They were saying the right things, dismissing their lack of NCAA experience and saying they were a hungry team.
"We had a great regular season. That's over," senior guard Cliff Hammonds said, a day before the Tigers took on No. 12 seed Villanova. "We had a great ACC Tournament. That's over. Now we want to go out and have a great NCAA Tournament.
"We're not satisfied with anything that we've done this year to this point. I mean, we haven't won any championships. We haven't accomplished our major goals of the season. So we're coming out to this NCAA Tournament, and I think we're one of the hungriest teams in the nation. We want to try to start with Villanova and work our way toward our ultimate goal from the start of the season, and that is winning a national championship."
That hunger and determination were on full display in the first 15 minutes against Villanova. The Tigers were threatening to run the Wildcats out of the building, stifling them with their full-court press and showing impressive balance and precision on the offensive end.
Freshman point guard Demontez Sitt hit a three-pointer with 5:02 left in the first half, and Clemson was up 36-18. Some Tigers fans in attendance probably started talking about No. 13 seed Siena, which advanced to the second round with a 21-point mauling of Vanderbilt.
But Villanova, which had posted its share of comebacks during the regular season, chipped away. The Wildcats closed the half on a 9-3 run in the final 4:43 as Clemson, trying to land the knockout blow, settled for long three-point attempts early in the shot clock.
By the 17:34 mark of the second half, Villanova had ripped off a 9-2 run to pull within five points. And by then, it was a completely different game. The Tigers knew they'd wasted a chance to put the Wildcats away, and they knew they were going to be in a fight until the final buzzer.
"We could have been up 20, 25," Hammonds said afterward, in a quiet and tearful Clemson locker room. "That swing of the score gave them a little momentum going into the half."
The reasons behind the defeat jumped out in the statistics. The Tigers simply could not shoot the ball in the second half, missing 21 of 28 overall and 14 of 16 from three-point range. Also, a familiar demon returned at a bad time, as the Tigers made just 14 of 23 free throws, all in the second half. Take away an 8-for-8 night from the line by Terrence Oglesby, and Clemson was just 6-of-15.
Clemson has plenty of skilled three-point shooters, but Purnell knows that his team walks a thin line when it doesn't work the ball inside. The Tigers failed miserably in that area against Villanova, as the formidable and versatile frontcourt tandem of James Mays and Trevor Booker got off just five shots while scoring 10 points and turning the ball over six times.
Villanova's tactic of fronting the post worked, and Clemson's guards struggled against the Wildcats' switching and trapping off screens.
Of the Tigers' 60 field goal attempts, more than half (33) were from three-point range. That's not a recipe for success in Purnell's book.
And a first-round ouster wasn't the recipe Purnell cooked up for this team.
"When you dream about the possibilities, it's hard when it comes to a crashing halt," he said. "So it's difficult. It will be hard watching games and feeling like you could still be playing."
MCELRATHBEY MESS AVOIDABLE
By now you've probably heard that Ray Ray McElrathbey, famous for taking custody of his little brother in August 2006 amid their mother's long battle with drug addiction, is no longer with Clemson's football team.
The Tigers' coaching staff might or might not have been entirely justified in wanting McElrathbey gone, so the national pundits probably went overboard in their savaging of Tommy Bowden for being a heartless dictator.
But this much is certain: Clemson completely botched the handling of this thing by presenting it to the media as a decision McElrathbey had reached on his own.
The real story remained a secret for all of about 30 minutes, after Clemson's vague and bogus announcement of McElrathbey's departure. That's how long it took for the Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier to get the truth from tailback James Davis, a close friend of McElrathbey.
In telling the newspaper that the Tigers' coaching staff revoked McElrathbey's scholarship, Davis told the truth. It was a shame Clemson couldn't do the same thing from the start.