CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) — Once again, Clemson had a chance to pull off the upset against a ranked opponent. Just like the first time, it didn’t work out for the Tigers.
Clemson erased an early 14-point deficit and grabbed the lead in the second half, but Mark Lyons helped No. 8 Arizona rally for a 66-54 victory at Littlejohn Coliseum on Saturday night.
Last month, the Tigers led No. 10 Gonzaga at the Old Spice Classic before going on to a 57-49 loss.
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“This is still a situation where we’ve played two high-level teams and played reasonably well at times,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said. “But for whatever reason, we haven’t been able to finish.”
Youth could have something to do with it. The Tigers have just two upperclassmen on the roster in seniors Devin Booker and Milton Jennings. Clemson’s depth took a hit this week, too, when guard T.J. Sapp decided to transfer.
“We don’t have that go-to scorer that can settle your team down and go make something happen when you need something to happen,” Brownell said. “That’s a problem at times.”
Arizona had squandered a double-digit lead from the opening half and was trailing 42-36 when Lyons and his teammates dug in.
The result was a back-breaking 25-7 surge over the next 10 minutes that gave Arizona a 7-0 record for its best start in 14 years. Lyons finished with a season-high 20 points.
“He has a confidence in our huddle and a toughness about him when going against confident players because he’s been in so many big games,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “He’s contagious. And I thought one of the reasons we continued to stay with it and fight in the second half was his disposition.”
This is Lyons’ first season at Arizona. He spent three years at Xavier, helping the team to three NCAA tournament appearances.
Eligible to play immediately as a graduate transfer, Lyons has thrown himself into his new surroundings.
“It’s an easy transition for me because of the guys I’m playing with,” he said. “My coach is a great point guard back in his day and he’s just making me better every day.”
That was apparent at Clemson, especially in the second half.
The Wildcats were staggering after they wasted a 22-8 lead and were down by six after Rod Hall’s 3-pointer with a second left on the shot clock. Lyons steadied the team and got back to work.
Lyons and Solomon Hill had two free throws apiece and Brandon Ashley had two baskets to tie it at 44.
Clemson took its last lead moments later at 47-44 on Milton Jennings’ 3-pointer with 8:38 to go.
After Jordin Mayes tied it for Arizona with a 3, Lyons found a wide-open Kaleb Tarczewski for the go-ahead layup and the Wildcats never trailed again.
When Lyons went in for a layup with 2:19 remaining, the Wildcats were ahead 61-49.
“This will help our morale,” Lyons said. “When we go on the road, we’ll be ready. And if we’re ever in a close game, we know what it takes to overcome it.”
Clemson (5-3) scored just two field goals in the final 8:45. Jennings led the Tigers with 15 points in his return from a two-game suspension because of a drug arrest.
Nick Johnson had 13 points and Hill had seven points and 10 rebounds for Arizona. But it was Lyons’ steady control that bailed the Wildcats out down the stretch.
Lyons led the team with four assists and hit all five of his foul shots.
Miller had a few words for those people who thought Lyons’ start to the season wasn’t crisp enough, with too many turnovers and not enough assists.
“Look, if you leave your job and you’re in a different area of the country, I bet you’re not going to feel good the first month,” Miller said. “It takes time, especially playing that role in point guard.”
K.J. McDaniels scored 13 points and Adonis Filer had 10 for the Tigers.
Brownell said this performance should prove to his players that “when we play good basketball, we can play with a lot of teams.”