CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) Tanner Smith heard too much last week about Clemson’s recent loss to South Carolina – and that was just in football.
Few Tiger athletes escape the grumbling around campus that follows a football loss to the archrival Gamecocks, and Smith’s basketball team was no different since South Carolina’s 34-17 victory on Nov. 28.
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“Clemson, South Carolina, that’s all people talk about around here,” Smith said.
Smith was glad to bring the fans of No. 18 Clemson something to smile about Sunday with a 72-61 victory, their sixth straight over their instate rival.
Smith and Demontez Stitt had 14 points each and the Tigers (7-2) used a late 18-6 run to take control of the Gamecocks (6-2).
Smith said the win was just as important for the Tigers’ psyches, which took a huge hit last Wednesday after blowing a 23-point second-half lead in a 76-74 loss to Illinois.
“That was a big game for us,” Stitt said. “We wanted to prove that it was something that wouldn’t continue this season.”
In this one, Clemson got back on track by holding Devan Downey of the Gamecocks in check.
Downey came in averaging more than 19 points a game this season and set his career high of 37 points against the Tigers last season. This time, he finished just 3 of 15 from the field for eight points.
“In a big game like this just to see him struggle was a surprise,” South Carolina coach Darrin Horn said.
Downey did not speak to the media after the game.
Brandis Raley-Ross scored 16 points for the Gamecocks, who again played without injured starters Dominique Archie and Mike Holmes.
Even missing the two 6-foot-7 forwards, the Gamecocks did a solid job keeping Clemson’s Trevor Booker off balance. He finished 2 of 9 from the field for seven points and committed four of Clemson’s 19 turnovers.
With so many Gamecocks packed around Booker, Clemson’s senior showed off his passing touch with a career-high seven assists – most to shooters waiting outside the 3-point line.
Clemson coach Oliver Purnell wants Booker to touch the ball each trip down the court and thinks this performance will prove to the Tigers that “if you throw it into him, you’re going to get some open looks.”
South Carolina had its share of solid shots, cutting a 10-point deficit to 52-50 on Raley-Ross’ fourth 3-pointer with 8:23 remaining. That’s when Stitt and Smith took control.
Stitt drove for a basket and Smith followed with a 3. Jerai Grant added two inside baskets to put Clemson up 63-54. Smith and Stitt ended the run with two foul shots each and the Tigers led 70-56.
Grant, the 6-8 son of former Oklahoma standout Harvey Grant, took advantage of the attention South Carolina paid Booker with 12 points and a career-high 11 rebounds.
At the end, a few South Carolina fans chanted, “It’s not football.” Clemson’s players are more than content with their ongoing streak of success between the state’s two biggest sports programs.
Purnell was anxious to see if his team was past the shock of the Illinois collapse.
The Tigers showed they were from the start, grabbing a 14-6 lead as David Potter had two 3-pointers and Stitt added one from long range.
Downey was 0 of 6 from the field in the first half. However, freshmen Lakeem Jackson and Ramon Galloway combined for 17 points to keep the Gamecocks in it in the first 20 minutes.
Jackson, a 6-5 forward, had South Carolina’s first two field goals and three steals. Galloway, Downey’s backup at the point, shot 5 of 9 for 11 points in the first half.
Galloway finished a three-point play with 1:22 to go to cut the Tigers’ lead to 32-29.
Downey had trouble getting free of Stitt, who chased him all over the court and blocked his shot on what looked like an easy breakaway.
“He’s a tough player, but we got the job done,” Stitt said.