COLUMBIA -- K.C. Rivers, Clemson's senior captain, didn't hesitate a few weeks back when asked for his biggest win with the Tigers.
"Beating Duke, finally, last year, that was pretty big," Rivers said with a smile.
Rivers and the 10th-ranked Tigers (18-2, 4-2 Atlantic Coast Conference) ended a long, long losing stretch against the Blue Devils last March with a 78-74 victory in the ACC tournament semifinals. Clemson looks to start its first series win streak in 13 years when it faces No. 4 Duke at Littlejohn Coliseum tonight.
The Tigers haven't beaten the Blue Devils in the regular season since 1997, an 86-82 overtime win. They lost the next 22 games before stunning Duke at the conference tournament, and Clemson has shown the talent and grit this season to hang with anyone.
The Tigers haven't won consecutive games over Duke since a three game streak in the mid-1990s.
Tiger coach Oliver Purnell says he'll tap into the last season's stellar effort against Duke this time around.
"I think it's important when you play against a team like Duke and a program like Duke, that you believe in what you're doing," he said. If "you can call upon positive experiences you've had in the recent past with a core group of players, that's really important."
Clemson might not need to go that far for inspiration.
The Tigers remember their last top-10 encounter three weeks ago with Wake Forest. They fell behind by 14 points and cut things to 61-60 before falling to the then second-ranked Demon Deacons.
Clemson followed that with a loss at North Carolina, dropping to 0-54 all-time at Chapel Hill. The back-to-back defeats, which came after a 16-0 start, had some clucking about the same old Clemson, unable to back up its early promise once it gets into the ACC.
And the Tigers appeared ready to play that role again, trailing Virginia Tech by 15 points early in the second half last Thursday in what could've been a crushing loss. Instead, Clemson rallied to an 86-82 victory behind Rivers' 29 points and his seven 3-pointers.
The Tigers would love to validate their status as an ACC rising power with a victory over one of the league's most elite programs.
"Anytime you're trying to climb into first place in your league and you're playing the team that's in first place, it's important that you go out and win the game, and if you win the game, it will build your confidence," Purnell said.
Clemson took some big steps in that regard last season. Purnell has pointed out, proudly, several times this year that in 2008, the Tigers didn't lose back-to-back games in the league -- an indication they know how to respond to adversity.
That will figured to get a challenge this season without three key seniors from the 2008 group in Cliff Hammonds, James Mays and Sam Perry. However, Rivers and top scorer and rebounder Trevor Booker have kept Clemson focused on moving forward.
There was no better example than against the Hokies.
Little went right for Clemson early on. Besides grabbing a big lead, Malcolm Delaney swished through a 60-footer at the halftime buzzer to send Virginia Tech flying into the locker room. The margin grew to 61-46 after the break.
But the Tigers hung with their defensive pressure and turned things around. It's a performance Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski has taken note of.
"Oliver's team, he's built such a good program, it's based on defense and effort," Krzyzewski said. "His kids play hard, they play as hard as anybody in the league, game in and game out."
The Blue Devils (19-2, 6-1) have some resolve, too. After a 70-68 loss to Wake Forest cost Duke it's No. 1 ranking, it bounced back in a 79-54 win over Virginia last Sunday.
Clemson's Purnell hasn't seen too many slip ups or let downs from his group this season. He expects, with a couple of solid days of practice, the same this week.
"I think you'll see a good performance out of us on Wednesday and if there's a good performance from Duke, you're going to see one whale of a basketball game," he said.
• When: 9 p.m.
• Where: Littlejohn Coliseum, Clemson
• TV: ESPN (cable channel 25 in Rock Hill)
• Tickets: Sold out
• Probable Clemson starters: G Demontez Stitt 6-2 (8.2 ppg); G Terrence Oglesby 6-2 (13.3 ppg); G/F K.C. Rivers 6-5 (14.6 ppg); F Trevor Booker 6-7 (14.8 ppg); C Raymond Sikes 6-9 (8.3 ppg).
• Probable Duke starters: G Nolan Smith 6-2 (10.2 ppg); G Jon Scheyer 6-5 (18.4 ppg); F Gerald Henderson 6-4 (15.0 ppg); F Kyle Singler 6-8 (16.2 ppg); F Lance Thomas 6-8 (5.6 ppg).
• Notes: It's hard to predict how Clemson's 15-point, come-from-behind win at Virginia Tech last week, plus a week's layoff, will affect the Tigers. After a similar win against Maryland last year, they responded with an upset loss at Georgia Tech, then rattled off three straight wins. ... A key component in the Virginia Tech triumph was the decision to call off Clemson's full-court pressure. Three of the Tigers' last four opponents have torched their press for consistently easy baskets. ... Oglesby was relegated to a situational sub the last game, logging his fewest minutes the last 13 contests. Duke held Oglesby to 6-for-19 shooting in two games last season, including 4-for-11 from 3-point range.