Even playing at home, most people wouldn’t have expected the Clemson Tigers to beat the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets on Tuesday night without a big contribution from top scorer K.J. McDaniels. But despite getting just eight points from McDaniels on 3-for-14 shooting, the Tigers grinded out a 45-41 ACC victory over the Yellow Jackets thanks to a big contribution from 5-foot-11 sophomore guard Jordan Roper.
Coming off the bench, Roper led Clemson (15-6, 6-3 ACC) with 12 points, which doesn’t sound like much, but given the offensive struggles of both teams in the game, it was a pretty massive contribution. After Clemson took a 25-22 lead into halftime, the teams combined for just 39 second-half points. Roper had 10 of his points in that first half, but despite only scoring two in the second half, his contribution was no less important.
In fact, Roper’s only bucket of the second half keyed a run that put the game in favor of the Tigers for good. It came with Clemson down 37-32 and the Tigers struggling to find any offense with just 6:30 to go. Roper drove the lane and hit a right-handed layup and was fouled. Roper missed the free throw, but the basket not only stopped an 8-0 Georgia Tech (12-11, 3-7 ACC) run, it started a 9-0 run for the Tigers that gave them a lead they would never relinquish. By the time the Yellow Jackets scored again, there was 2:19 left and Clemson had a 41-37 lead.
Roper was the only Clemson player to score in double figures and his effort couldn’t have come at a bigger time for the Tigers. With the win, Clemson stayed within three games of unbeaten conference leader Syracuse and moved into a three-way third-place tie with the Pittsburgh Panthers and Duke Blue Devils. Clemson has already beaten Duke this season in the only meeting between the schools, though the Tigers lost by 33 to Pittsburgh. The Tigers and Panthers meet again on March 8 to close out the regular season.
Clemson is in the ACC race and very alive for a top-four finish thanks to Roper’s effort Tuesday night. He hit two three-pointers in the first half as part of his 10-point outburst. This wasn’t the first time this season Roper has played a key role for the Tigers — he scored 15 points on Nov. 17 in a 71-57 win over South Carolina, one that had to be particularly sweet for Roper, a native of Columbia, S.C. His season high is 19 points, accomplished Nov. 30 vs. VMI.
But a loss Tuesday night would have dropped Clemson into a fifth-place tie with suddenly surging North Carolina in the ACC race. Now, Roper and his teammates have a nice 6-3 record halfway through the conference season. And while the Tigers immediately face a tough stretch (at Syracuse, at Notre Dame, home to Virginia), the Tigers have five winnable games following that before the regular-season finale with Pitt. Clemson will need more big games from Roper, as well as better play from McDaniels, to finish in the neighborhood of 12-6 or 11-7 in the ACC this college basketball season. For Tuesday night, however, Roper was the star Clemson desperately needed.