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[Clemson - Va. Tech recap | Clemson - Va. Tech Box score | 2008-09 schedule | Updated ACC Standings]
This victory was about a lot of things for Oliver Purnell's Clemson basketball team.
It was about K.C. Rivers once again showing us he can shake free from a slump spectacularly. It was about an unusual suspect (David Potter) coming up with huge plays late.
And yes, it was about Purnell knowing when to call off his beloved full-court press.
But the most important part of this thoroughly pleasing 86-82 triumph for the No. 12 Tigers (18-2, 4-2 ACC) was that it offered some validation – validation that was in short supply after back-to-back losses to Wake Forest and North Carolina.
Having been outclassed by the Demon Deacons and dusted by the Tar Heels, Clemson needed a credibility boost. Consider it earned after the Tigers overcame a 15-point second-half deficit against Virginia Tech in front of a frenzied crowd at Cassell Coliseum in yet another nerve-jangling meeting between these two.
"Our guys refused to lose tonight," Purnell told Clemson's radio crew when it was over.
This one felt a lot like last year's epic comeback at Maryland, where Clemson surmounted a 20-point second-half margin and won on a long 3-pointer by Terrence Oglesby.
But this Virginia Tech team is more skilled and more formidable than that reeling Terrapins outfit. This Virginia Tech team had won nine of 10 games, including last week's vanquishing of then-No. 1 Wake Forest.
This Virginia Tech team has Malcolm Delaney, a sophomore point guard who's playing as well as anyone in the country right now. Delaney finished with 37 points in 39 minutes, including that heave from well beyond halfcourt as the halftime buzzer sounded.
When something like that happens, it's easy to think game over. Raise your hand if you didn't think precisely that after Delaney's nothing-but-net bomb sent the Hokies into halftime up 53-44.
No one in Clemson's locker room was ready to give in, though. The Tigers were woeful in the first half and yet found themselves within a manageable margin thanks largely to Rivers and junior forward Trevor Booker.
And really, games between the Hokies and Tigers are just supposed to be close. Every single one of the previous six had been decided by five points or less, including the Tigers' last trip to Blacksburg (a 75-74 win that denied Virginia Tech the 2007 regular-season ACC title).
Purnell said he didn't detect any resignation or panic as he sized up his players.
"Guys didn't have that look in their eyes like they were dazed," he said. "They had that look in their eye like: 'We haven't played. Let's take it to them in the second half.'"
Rivers took it to the Hokies the whole game and finished with 29 points. His total in the previous four games: 37 points.
Rivers contributed 10 points during a 23-3 bulge that turned the 15-point deficit into a five-point advantage – including a 3-pointer from the corner against the Hokies' zone with 9:27 remaining that made it 69-64.
Rivers attempted 10 3-pointers and made seven. He'd hit seven total over his previous five games.
His biggest plays late came inside the 3-point arc. He curled off a Booker screen and nailed a jumper to put the Tigers up three with 48 seconds left.
Then, after Potter missed the back end of a one-and-one with 22 seconds left and Clemson up four, Rivers leaped high to snare the rebound.
Rivers did miss the front end of the ensuing one-on-one, but that didn't keep Purnell from calling his senior's game "maybe as good an all-around performance I've seen all year long in the ACC."
For Potter, it might've been the most clutch performance of his career. The Hokies had snatched back the momentum after Clemson went up six, and the Tigers were facing an 80-78 deficit when Potter had the ball at the top of the key and drove forcefully for a game-tying layup with 2:08 on the clock.
On the next trip down the floor, the junior forward set a pick for Demontez Stitt at the top of the key and found himself wide open when Delaney and Jeff Allen chased the ball. Stitt turned and found Potter, who drained the 3 to make it 83-80.
Virginia Tech shot 60 percent in the first half and 38 percent thereafter. That was largely attributable to Purnell junking his full-court press, which the Hokies scorched time and again while building a 14-point advantage in the first half.
Purnell opted instead for half-court traps on Virginia Tech's ball screens, and the tactic worked masterfully because it took the Hokies out of transition and disrupted their rhythm.
Delaney's numbers were no doubt huge, but all but seven were scored before the 16:30 mark of the second half. A.D. Vassallo, one of the Hokies' other big guns, had 10 points in the first half and zero thereafter.
And Booker, who'd been in a bit of a slump of his own, finished with 21 muscular points while grabbing 13 rebounds (five offensive).
"We kind of took the physical fight back," Purnell said. "We outfought them in the second half."
The Tigers are still ranked high, but they know they're still in a battle for respect after what happened against the Demon Deacons and Tar Heels.
They were out-run and out-jumped by the former (a 78-68 home defeat), and just flat-out whipped by the latter (a 94-70 hammering in Chapel Hill).
If these sobering reality checks contained a silver lining, it's that they came in January. Plenty of time for this crew to show it's worthy of the high praise that accompanied its 16-0 start. Plenty of time to silence the folks who are anticipating a late-season flameout.
Thursday night provided one exquisite opportunity, and the Tigers capitalized on it in dramatic and impressive fashion.
Another chance comes Wednesday, when those Duke Blue Devils roll into town.
Win that one, and no one is talking about the losses to Wake Forest and North Carolina anymore.
Win that one, and the season becomes fun again. Or maybe it already has.
*** To chat with other Clemson fans about this article please visit The West Zone message board.