CHARLOTTE -- One could almost feel a collective intake of air when James Mays stepped to the line for the back end of a three-point play, Clemson leading Duke 58-56 with 5:50 to go.
No one could blame those orange-clad fans who clasped their hands in front of their mouths or shut their eyes. How many times in the past three years had the Tigers been in this situation, only to see the shots rim out, the opponent score and Clemson lose another close game?
The senior eyed the rim, dribbled and released.
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Two possessions later, Mays was at the line again, seeking to extend a 63-58 lead after being fouled on a made layup. Dribble, shoot, swish.
Ahead 69-64, 1:41 to play. The field goal didn't fall this time, so Mays had to make two.
Bounce, flip, swish. Bounce, flip, swish.
Teammate K.C. Rivers was caught giving his teammate an incredulous look. After all, Mays was a .525 shooter from the line, the third-worst percentage on the team among the regulars.
"Yeah, I did," Rivers said with a laugh after the Tigers went on to beat Duke 78-74 and claim a spot in today's ACC tournament championship. "But I knew he was going to make them. We're all working so hard on those in practice every day."
It might have taken three years, but it's finally paid off.
Clemson missed the past two NCAA tournaments despite strong teams for a number of reasons, but one of the biggest was futility from the line. The simplest shot in the game was the hardest for the Tigers to make, and when those three-point or five-point losses became too common, it was easy to find too many missed free throws to blame them on.
The running gag was adopted into coach Oliver Purnell's postgame comments. He kept saying the only way to beat it was to recruit better shooters.
Or have the veterans work their tails off trying to get better, which was what happened.
Make no mistake, Clemson is still an awful free-throw shooting team. The Tigers are dead last in the ACC in the category, and although they only missed seven on Saturday, one of them was an airball from Sam Perry.
But they've improved so much it's easy to see why those close losses turned into wins this season. Mays hit all six of his attempts, the only time this year he's made that many in one game, and when the Blue Devils put him on the line hoping he'd choke, Mays swallowed hard and remembered all those afternoons in the gym.
"I had to," Mays said. "I mean, when was I going to be here again?"
The new approach was to make it into a team competition at practice. Losers run.
"It's just down and back, but still, nobody wants to run," Rivers said. "That's what really made the difference."
"We've been working on it each and every day and we just knew that if we stepped to the line with confidence, they're going to drop," Cliff Hammonds said. "That's the way I went to the line and Mays went to the line."
Next is North Carolina at 1 p.m. today for all the marbles. Clemson could win the ACC tournament title for the first time and beat the Tar Heels for the first time in three tries this year.
The others were a two-point and 10-point decision, the first in overtime and the second in double overtime. The Tigers were 14-of-27 from the line in the first, 1-of-7 in the second.
"I hope so," Mays said, replying to if he thought UNC might try to put him on the line if it's a close game. "That'd be something if I got to do it again."