Thursday, March 08, 2007

It's March again

Every year during college basketball season, there are magical climbs and magical falls. No two teams seemed to epitomize the euphoria and the utter agony of the extremes of college basketball better than Clemson and Davidson.

Both teams started the year with airs of uncertainty as they returned limited starters, and only had one scholarship senior between them. Projections placed both Clemson and Davidson directly in the middle of their conference with the possibility of rising to the top and slipping to the very bottom.

By the beginning of January, Clemson and Davidson had a combined record of 30-4, and both teams were coming off of huge victories over conference rivals on the same night. Davidson had fended off pre-season top pick College of Charleston on their home court, while Clemson had beaten Georgia Tech on a layup with time expiring.

However, on the night of January 13th, the spirits of college basketball whisked Davidson into the driver's seat, while subsequently driving Clemson back into the dungeon of self-doubt and mediocrity that has long plagued the Tiger basketball program.

On that night, Davidson was battling for their lives on the road in Spartanburg, SC. The Wofford Terriers refused to relent, and the Wildcats were beginning to see that conference play would not be nearly as easy as they had made it look. With under a minute remaining, Wofford was only one possession away from pulling off the upset when Will Archambault hit one of the biggest threes of his young career as a Wildcat. Davidson would go on to win by five.

Up the road in College Park, MD, Clemson was feeling the pressure of its nation-longest streak, and they were being pushed to the wire by a tough Maryland squad. WIth opportunities to score down the stretch, Clemson continually missed the front ends of 1-in-1's and dropped the contest by the same margin: five.

As Davidson rolled through their conference season with their only blemish coming at home against Appalachian State, Clemson began feeling the pressure; their poor field goal shooting cost them the game against UNC while poor refereeing cost them a precious win at Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium. Davidson's young team was finding their identity and imposing it on their opponents, while Clemson crumbled under the high intensity of the ACC conference schedule. The Tigers finished the season 7-9 in the conference and ended up with the eight seed in the conference tournament.

With the regular seasons wrapped up, the conference tournaments became microcosms of the balance of confidence, coaching and talented play that is in constant flux within the college basketball season. Davidson entered the tournament as the top seed, fully confident of their ability to advance to the NCAA tournament. Clemson entered with a requisite for immediate success in order to be considered for an NCAA at-large bid, this coming only months after Clemson was thought to be a contender for the league title.

One minute of one game within each respective tournament showed confidence and resiliency juxtaposed with doubt and fear as both teams neared the conclusion of games that would decide their postseason future.

The Wildcats were tied with the hometown Cougars with five minutes remaining in the SoCon championship game. With no shot at an at-large bid, both teams realized that their seasons came down to execution at the end of the game. Although decibel levels were reaching record highs, Davidson was able to force a turnover by all-conference player Dontaye Draper and convert it into an old-fashioned three-point play. Another forced turnover on the next possession caused a run-out and easy layup by Thomas Sander. The Wildcats had used their defense to create offense and put the game away. The Cougars would never get back to within two, and the Wildcats danced into the NCAA tournament.

With the game tied and one minute remaining against Florida State in the ACC's opening round of its tournament in Tampa, Clemson knew that they needed to pull out a victory in order to have any hope of dancing in the NCAAs. The Tiger defense muscled up for one final stand and rookie Trevor Booker made a tremendous block and recovery as the shot clock wound down. The Tigers would have the last shot of the game. But, as Vernon Hamilton dribbled the ball over half-court, his routine pass to Cliff Hammonds bounced off his knee and caused a backcourt violation. The Seminoles received a controversial foul call ("In no way was that a foul," Billy Packer), and won the game with a free throw in the final seconds. Clemson's spirit had driven them so far, and yet their propensity to make bone-headed mistakes and create their own bad luck did them in at the end.

Two teams started the season with talent, great coaching, and a ton of uncertainty. By the beginning of March, the bounces and rollercoasters of college basketball had taken their toll and separated the victims from the heroes. Some now go home, while others march on.

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