Coming off what was a woeful performance in the NCAA tournament for the ACC, the Clemson Tigers and Florida State Seminoles marched into Madison Square Garden Tuesday night with an opportunity to at least save a little face for the conference, as wins would put both teams into the NIT championship game, a rare accomplishment for any conference.
But like the NCAA tournament only on a bit smaller stage, the bright lights were a bit too much for the ACC duo. For the third time in four days, ACC teams saw their season end at MSG.
Last Friday, it was league regular season and tournament champions Virginia who were felled by Michigan State 61-59 in the NCAA tournament East Region semifinal. A respectable loss, but the Cavaliers were the top seed in the region. Virginia still finished 30-7, it’s not as if the Cavaliers had that much to hang their heads about.
For the Seminoles and Tigers, however, Tuesday’s trip to MSG was much more about putting a respectable finish on an otherwise disappointing season. Florida State usually factors in the ACC race, but finished seventh this season at 9-9 in the league and bowed out in the ACC tournament quarterfinals, losing to Virginia. Clemson had shown signs of being really good at times, handling Duke rather easily at home but eventually finishing seventh in the ACC with a 10-8 league record.
Both teams were rightly passed over for at-large bids to the NCAA tournament and tried to make the most of their opportunities in the NIT, each having won three games to get to Tuesday’s semifinals.
Florida State at least went out fighting. The Seminoles rallied from 15 down in the first half to force overtime before finally succumbing to the Big 10‘s Minnesota Golden Gophers 67-64, a game that went so long it was after midnight before it ended. So on the bright side, you could say Florida State’s season lasted one additional day.
Clemson, on the other hand, wasn’t so lucky. The Tigers led SMU 38-26 at halftime and appeared well on their way to what would have been a really nice win, given the fact that the Mustangs were really the only school for whom experts shed a tear when they weren’t selected as an at-large team into the NCAA tournament. But it all fell apart for Clemson in the second half, as SMU outscored the Tigers 39-21 to take a 65-59 win and move on to the final vs. Minnesota.
Clemson (23-13) hit just 40 percent of its shots, was badly outrebounded by SMU, and committed 14 turnovers. Standout junior forward K.J. McDaniels managed just 11 points, though he did add seven rebounds. Rod Hall led the Tigers with 18 points. Clemson was a dreadful 6-for-25 (28 percent) from the field in the second half. Florida State (22-14) got 16 points each from Okaro White and Ian Miller, but the Seminoles hit just 4-of-18 from 3-point range and turned the ball over an ugly 18 times.
Instead of what many conference observers had hoped would be an all-ACC NIT final to showcase the conference, the night ended with disappointment fitting of the conference this postseason with only one team (Virginia) even making the Sweet 16, and a perennial powerhouse like Duke losing its first game to unheralded Mercer.
Not that winning the NIT is the biggest deal, but you would have figured that Clemson or Florida State would have at least given the ACC a chance at the title. Instead, they both lost, and the ACC college basketball season ended with a whimper.