CLEMSON -- Clemson's seniors' day became Demontez Stitt's moment.
Seniors James Mays, Matt Morris, Sam Perry and Cliff Hammonds all stood holding their breath, eyeing freshman Stitt on the free throw line with 3.8 seconds to go on Sunday. Clemson trailed 69-68 to Virginia Tech and Stitt could tie or win the game.
"I'd missed a couple earlier in the game," Stitt said. "I thought about the Mississippi State game a little bit, how calm I was that game."
On Nov. 15, Stitt hit all eight of his free throws to help the Tigers beat MSU 84-82. On Sunday, third place in the ACC hanging in the balance, he was money again.
His two free throws gave Clemson a 70-69 lead and Deron Washington's frantic 3-pointer at the buzzer sailed wide, finishing the No. 24 Tigers' regular season with a flourish. Already assured of a first-round bye in this week's ACC tournament no matter what happened against the Hokies, Clemson edged Tech in another thriller and claimed its highest league finish since 1990, when the Tigers won their lone ACC championship.
"Definitely," grinned Hammonds, responding to a query on whether the seniors had been upstaged. "But that's a big thing for his confidence. It helps us out a lot, young guys stepping up and making plays."
As it seems it always is when these two teams get together, it was a classic that ended on one big play.
And for the third straight game, a Tiger made it.
Washington put back A.D. Vassallo's missed jumper immediately after Stitt lost the ball, the deuce giving the Hokies (18-12, 9-7 ACC) a one-point lead with under 10 seconds to play.
Coach Oliver Purnell had a timeout but saw the court was broken, so he signaled Stitt to get the ball and run. Stitt drove the left side on Vassallo and was fouled, Vassallo's hand tapping Stitt's arm.
In a game filled with physical play -- 44 fouls were called, including one intentional and one technical -- the hand-check seemed rather trivial to Tech coach Seth Greenberg. Neverthless, Stitt went to the line and aced the shots, causing Clemson's student sections to rush the court.
"We've only got four seniors, so those other guys got to do something," joked Purnell.
Greenberg had to be separated from the officials afterward and was seething walking through the tunnel. He never stopped rubbing his head and eyes during the postgame press conference and when asked about the confrontation, deferred.
"I asked him what his wife's birthday is," he said before switching gears. "The physicality of the game, obviously ... amazing what it came down to.
"It was just a damn shame that it came down to that."
Stitt ended with 12 points, behind Mays' 13 and a team-high 17 from Terrence Oglesby, who spurred the Tigers to a first-half lead they held until the last few minutes. Oglesby was also involved in a melodrama with Washington, after he was whistled for an intentional foul on Washington and then, scarcely two minutes later, was hacked by Washington with no intentional called.
At that point, Virginia Tech had just taken the lead and continued to hold it until less than two minutes to go. That's when Hammonds went to the floor to tie up Vassallo, coming up with the steal and feeding Mays for a monster dunk and a 66-65 lead.
K.C. Rivers was called for a technical after pushing Vassallo but Vassallo only hit one free throw to tie the game. Jeff Allen followed him by bricking two free throws, Mays grabbing the rebound and getting fouled.
Standing on the line with 1:31 to play, his well-documented free-throw struggles running through every head in the building, Mays calmly swished both attempts. Vassallo stepped on the sideline on the next possession but picked off Stitt right after, which led to Washington's putback.
Then it became up to Stitt, who nailed both shots and rode the wave of momentum into his teammates' arms and the ACC tournament.
"We wanted to do this for the seniors the whole night," Stitt said. "I'm just so glad we got the win for them."
Clemson (22-8, 10-6) is thought to be assured a spot in the NCAA tournament but was already planning a businesslike approach to the ACC tournament, even with a rare day off. As the third seed, the Tigers will play either Boston College or Maryland at 9 p.m. on Friday.
Preparing for two teams is a burden, but it's a good one to have.
"We have a chance to be ACC champions," Purnell said. "We know we can beat the top teams, but we also know that the teams below us can beat us."