For all the world, it looked like another West Virginia second-half letdown.
Leading 35-34 at the half over Clemson, the Mountaineers again started the final 20 minutes as they had played every such period this year – with poor defense and disjointed offense. With an early 11-0 run, the Tigers took a 49-39 lead and appeared poised to send WVU back to Morgantown with its second consecutive loss in the Shriners Children’s Charleston Classic.
Then, a pair of switches flipped. First, West Virginia (4-1) began playing defense, if not like its best squads of old, at least good enough to bother a Clemson team that had shot 55% in the first half. The Mountaineers sped up the Tigers, forced turnovers and created enough chances for themselves to climb back into the contest.
Second, WVU guard Sean McNeil broke free of a clutching, grabbing Tiger defense to score 15 points after being blanked in the opening half. The combination was enough to lift West Virginia to a 27-10 run over the final 14 minutes of the game and produce a 66-59 win.
“He came out and made some hard shots,” WVU head coach Bob Huggins said of McNeil. “Sitting on bench helped him after he gave up two lay-ups. I told him that’s not what we do here, and when he came back in we told him, ‘You have to go get us some buckets.'”
That the junior guard did, making five of eight shots in the second half to go along with a 4-4 showing at the line while no other Mountaineer had more than four points in the frame.
The rally wasn’t easy, though. While West Virginia was applying defensive clamps to the Tigers, it took a while for it to take advantage. The Mountaineers held Clemson (4-2) to just three field goals over the final 14 minutes, and just 10 points overall in that stretch, but didn’t draw level until the 3:43 mark, when McNeil hit a jumper in the mid-range to knot the score at 56. From there, WVU closed with a 10-3 run to secure the win.
While Clemson continued to shoot the ball well in the second half, making 53% of its shots, the difference was in opportunities. The Tigers managed to get just 17 shots away in the final 20 minutes, as WVU forced 10 turnovers, including three of the shot clock violation variety. WVU, meanwhile, got 30 shots at the rim, helping account for a massive 21-shot advantage in the game.
The Tigers still had a couple of chances to get back into the game in the final minute, but were thwarted by a great individual WVU play, followed by a huge self-inflicted mistake. Trailing 60-57, the Tigers deployed their own clamps defensively, and had the Mountaineers in trouble with the shot clock winding down and the ball stuck on the perimeter. However, Malik Curry salvaged the situation by driving to his left and banking a high-arcing lay-up off the board to push the lead to five.
Then, following a missed 3-pointer and a deflection out of bounds, Clemson made a substitution mistake and put six players on the floor for West Virginia’s in-bound play. The Tigers were whistled for a technical foul, McNeil canned both freebies, and the Mountaineers had breathing room with 17 seconds to play.
“That was the Mountaineer team here, what people love to see,” said an upbeat Huggins. “Guys who play that hard, compete that hard. They came to play today. “We didn’t do that (Friday) night and they were as embarrassed as I was.”
McNeil’s 15 points were good enough to lead WVU, while Taz Sherman added 12. Gabe Osabuohien had seven rebounds and four assists, both team highs. For Clemson, Al-Amir Dawes took scoring honors with 18.
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West Virginia converted on nine of its 11 tries from the free-throw line, while Clemson was just 10-18.
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WVU continued to struggle to score in the lane and at the rim. The Mountaineers missed eight such shots, according to official stats that had to be at least questioned due to a number of scoring snafus that have plagued the event with multiple stoppages over the weekend.
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West Virginia returns home for the first of five consecutive home games, beginning Friday at 7:00 p.m. against Eastern Kentucky.
“Now we go back for (five) straight at home,” Huggins said. “It would be great to have that place filled again like it was for Pitt and make it a fun atmosphere. Let’s go win (some) in a row and get ranked again and be considered contenders for national honors.”