CLEMSON -- The calming influence and unflinching nerve that has come to define Clemson guard Cliff Hammonds was put to the test two summers ago.
On a July morning, longtime girlfriend Lakendra Jackson teased Hammonds about getting married.
Little had Jackson realized that later in the evening, Hammonds already decided to propose.
"I scared him a little bit," Lakendra said. "He thought I knew."
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Herald
Hammonds has come up roses for the Tigers in numerous clutch situations throughout his career, perhaps none more so than their recent three-game stretch preceding today's Valentine's Day clash with Georgia Tech.
With freshman Demontez Stitt recovering from knee surgery, Hammonds shifted to the point guard position and immediately elevated Clemson's play on several levels, thereby convincing coach Oliver Purnell to stick with his revamped lineup despite Stitt's return.
The Tigers rattled off consecutive 20-plus point blowout wins before pinning No. 3 North Carolina against the ropes of an eventual double-overtime loss.
Hammonds, who had a career-high 31 points against the Tar Heels, has doubled his normal scoring production since the move (20.3 points) while shooting 56.8 percent from the floor and averaging 5.3 assists.
Multi-tasking is the norm for the architecture and psychology double major.
Yet junior guard K.C. Rivers, Hammonds' roommate, suggests looking no further than Hammonds' love story for the commitment and drive Clemson fans have grown to appreciate.
"Cliff is an inspiring guy," Rivers said. "They are like one big happy family. It's nice to see."
They include 1-year-old Cliff Hammonds V, aka "C.J.," and Lakendra, who might be visible behind Clemson's bench tonight in the purple dress Hammonds bought as part of his first Valentine's gift as her husband.
The couple, both natives of Cairo, Ga., were married on June 2.
Hammonds, who relocated frequently as a child in a military family, returned to Cairo before his eighth-grade year in 1999.
Soon thereafter, he and her cousin were socializing at a Cairo High School football game when they bumped into Lakendra, then a ninth-grader.
"That was a little intimidating," Hammonds said. "But I just saw something in her. A lot of people say it, but love at first sight."
They dated through high school, then tasted the difficulties of a long-distance relationship when Lakendra went off to Valdosta State, some 60 miles east.
During his drive home following the 2006 NIT defeat at Louisville, Hammonds said he decided to pop the question.
More than three months later, Hammonds took Lakendra to Cairo High for an evening walk around the track.
Instead of going straight to their car afterward, Hammonds guided Lakendra to the grassy breezeway near the auditorium -- the spot they had first met.
Hammonds dropped to one knee, prompting Lakendra to ask two questions before Hammonds could even deliver his spiel -- was he serious, and, out of Southern tradition, had he consulted her father?
The answer to all three questions wound up being yes.
"I'd been thinking about marriage ever since I went to school," Hammonds said. "I figured I was going to be a junior and didn't have too much longer. I pretty much had an idea where I wanted to go with my life and what we wanted to do with our lives. I figured there was no better time."
To get married, that is. Both contend the better time will come after graduation in May.
Because of complications during her pregnancy, Lakendra left Valdosta State for Thomasville University, just a 15-minute commute from Cairo.
Both sets of grandparents keep C.J. during the day to help Lakendra cram in her "two jobs."
Her 40-hour-a-week job as an activity therapist at Southwestern State Hospital in Thomasville pays the bills. That on top of a 19-hour course load designed to help Lakendra graduate by May, so the family can go wherever Hammonds' hoops career initially takes him, presumably overseas.
"It's hard, and we've both had to make lots of sacrifices," Lakendra said. "But now we're counting down the days."
Said Hammonds, "If you ask any of my teammates, they probably would tell you I was married when I stepped on campus. Just knowing we're going to be together next year, that's something big for us."
GEORGIA TECH (11-11, 4-4 ACC) AT CLEMSON (17-6, 5-4)
• When: 9 p.m.
• Where: Littlejohn Coliseum, Clemson
• TV: None
• On the Web: Live Gametracker stats at clemsontigers.com
• Tickets: Available at the box office
• Georgia Tech's probable starters: G Maurice Miller 6-1 Fr. (6.3 ppg, 3.3 apg); G Anthony Morrow 6-5 Sr. (14.7 ppg, 4.4 rpg); C Jeremis Smith 6-8 Sr. (9.6 ppg, 6.9 rpg); F Gani Lawal 6-8 Fr. (7.5 ppg, 3.9 rpg); F D'Andre Bell 6-5 Jr. (6.3 ppg, 1.7 rpg)
• Clemson's probable starters: G Cliff Hammonds 6-3 Sr. (11.7 ppg, 4.2 rpg); G K.C. Rivers 6-5 Jr. (15.8 ppg, 6.7 rpg); C Trevor Booker 6-7 So. (11.4 ppg, 8.2 rpg); F James Mays 6-9 Sr. (10.7 ppg, 6.9 rpg); F Sam Perry 6-5 Jr. (2.7 ppg, 1.9 rpg)
• Notes: The Tigers come off another overtime affair, their fourth of the season and second that went to double-OT. Clemson is 2-2 in those games. ... Clemson has more home wins on Valentine's Day (14) than any other date on the calendar. ... Hammonds scored a career-high 31 in his last game and will become the Tigers' leader in career starts tonight, passing Greg Buckner. ... Freshman guard Demontez Stitt played against North Carolina after missing two games with a knee injury and should play tonight, although he won't start. ... David Potter has scored in double figures for three straight games. ... The Tigers are tops in the ACC in 3-point percentage.
• Up next: Clemson plays at 3 p.m. on Saturday at N.C. State.