The Tigers, picked next-to-last in the supersized Atlantic Coast Conference before the season, may have picked up a few more followers in the first half of league play after their 45-41 win over Georgia Tech on Tuesday night left them at 6-3 and tied for fourth.
Roper scored 12 points to bail out Clemson (15-6) when standout swingman K.J. McDaniels struggled to make shots.
“As a close-knit group, we knew what we bring to the table, we knew our identity,” Roper said. “Guys accepted their roles and it’s paying off now.”
Clemson’s identity is its lock-down defense. The Tigers are second nationally in fewest points allowed and called on that style to rally past the Yellow Jackets (12-11, 3-7) down the stretch.
After Georgia Tech had moved in front 37-32 on Marcus Georges-Hunt’s foul shots with less than seven minutes left, the Tigers scored nine straight points and forced three turnovers in a 9-0 run to take the lead.
McDaniels’ high-flying alley-oop jam put Clemson up for good, 39-37 with 4:39 left. Not that it was over, not by a long shot.
When Georges-Hunt hit both ends of a one-and-one to make it 41-39, Clemson point guard Rod Hall had a spinning layup for his only basket of the game with under two minutes left.
Daniel Miller, who led Georgia Tech with 18 points, made a jumper to again draw his team within two and the Yellow Jackets got the ball back one last time following McDaniels’ team-high fourth turnover.
McDaniels made up for it moments later, blocking Georges-Hunt’s driving layup. Kammeon Holsey rebounded, but his follow came up short. Clemson’s Jaron Blossomgame grabbed the ball, got fouled and made both foul shots for the final margin — and Clemson’s 500th win alltime at 45-year-old Littlejohn Coliseum.
McDaniels, who scored 26 points in Saturday’s win at Florida State, finished with eight points on 3-of-14 shooting.
“Sometimes you’re going to have a game like this that’s just a grinder and you’ve got to be proud of your guys for finding a way to win,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said. “At a point there they have a five-point lead and a five-point lead felt like two touchdowns.”
Miller was Georgia Tech’s lone scoring source, making nine of 13 baskets to keep his depleted team in it. Already without leading rebounder Robert Carter Jr. and injured forward Jason Morris, the Yellow Jackets also were minus top scorer Trae Golden, the former McEachern High School star kept out after re-aggravating a groin injury last weekend at Wake Forest.
Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory says his players or program won’t be defined by who’s missing. “You have to rely on your character and your resolve during that time and that’s why those guys were brought here,” he said.
Gregory said the Yellow Jackets would likely get Carter back for Saturday’s home game with Virginia. He also hoped to have Golden ready, but was less certain about that.
This was Clemson’s first home game since it defeated Wake Forest 61-53 on Jan. 18. Since, the Tigers were blown out at ACC-newcomer Pittsburgh (76-43) and at North Carolina (80-61) to fall to 0-57 all-time at Chapel Hill.
Clemson, though, rebounded in its last road test with a 53-49 victory at Florida State — the Tigers’ third ACC victory on the road this season.
Georgia Tech stood toe-to-toe defensively with the Tigers, ranked second in the country in points allowed.
Clemson started out 5-of-16 from the field and went more than five minutes without a basket as the Yellow Jackets opened up a 22-18 lead. That’s when the Tigers got going on both ends of the court and finished the half with a 7-0 run to lead 25-22 at the break.
Roper had five points in the run, including his second 3-pointer of the half. The sophomore closed the half by finishing a layup off a pretty inside pass from McDaniels.
McDaniels, Clemson’s top scorer averaging almost 17 points this season, was held in check by the Yellow Jackets the first 20 minutes. He was 1-of-7 on field goals and missed all three of his shots beyond the arc.
Roper said the team’s confidence is growing each time they see their defensive tenacity pay off. “That’s what we’re doing, just finding our way,” he said. “And it turned out great for us tonight.”