College Sports

Tigers hope to shake ACC tournament funk

CHARLOTTE -- Of course they knew about it.

"Oh yeah," forward James Mays disdainfully said last week, when asked if he was aware of Clemson's awful history in the ACC tournament. "It's brought up every year around this time."

Maybe it's just more pertinent this year, because of what's happened with Clemson basketball -- and what could happen today.

The Tigers (22-8) took the first day of the ACC tournament off for the first time since 1998 on Thursday, a spot they earned by posting the program's first 10-win ACC season in 18 years. That third-place finish, their highest since they won their lone ACC regular-season title (1990), deservedly earned them a bye and a wait until today, when they'll play the winner of Boston College and Maryland at 9:30 p.m. for a spot in the semifinals.

Coach Oliver Purnell wanted that spot, because it's better odds mathematically. It's easier for a team to win three games in three days than four in four, a feat that's never been accomplished in ACC history.

Still, when it comes to Clemson in the ACC tournament, everyone's learned to fear the worst possibility.

"We're just trying to win the championship," said guard Cliff Hammonds, brushing aside the history. "If we do the right thing, get our rest and start preparing for it, we'll be fine."

The history:

• Clemson, a founding member of the league, has only appeared in the tournament finals once, 46 years ago.

• The Tigers have only made the tournament semifinals 10 times in 54 years.

• In the same stretch, Clemson has won a meager 14 tournament games, only two since 2000.

• The school record for coach's wins in the tournament is three, a mark jointly held by Cliff Ellis and Bill Foster and one Purnell can tie with two wins this weekend.

• Even as a high seed, the road's not been fortunate. As a No. 1 seed in 1990, Clemson lost to Virginia, which finished 6-8. A No. 2 seed in 1987 fell to 2-12 Wake Forest.

History has no bearing on this team, which has already been proven. A team that just missed the NCAA tournament for two straight years thanks to stunning late-season collapses is thought to be in this year, no matter what happens in the ACC tournament.

Purnell has taken that approach this week. He's stressed over and over the Tigers finished strong, with three wins in their last four games. The last two were over Maryland, where Clemson set a school record with a 20-point second-half comeback and won on freshman Terrence Oglesby's buzzer-beating 3-pointer; and Virginia Tech, where a six-point deficit disappeared in less than a minute and freshman Demontez Stitt sank two free throws for a one-point win.

In short, they've changed history so much this season, they might as well keep on changing it.

"The seniors," Purnell said, mentioning Mays, Hammonds, Sam Perry and reserve Matt Morris, "have really put their stamp on this program. That's why we've had our success and why there's no reason we can't have more."

The four have won a tournament game, during their freshman years. It's been two straight first-round exits, by a combined four points, since.

They don't need to win this weekend, but they want to. It would be another prize added to the growing list of accolades each has accomplished already and perhaps give the class the distinction as the program-starters.

It's why the underclassmen have followed the example set by not treating the rare off day like a day off.

"We're up there for a business purpose," said junior guard and Charlotte native K.C. Rivers. "No pleasure out of it, this all business. We want to make a statement, we want to keep on earning respect."

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