CHARLOTTE - When Duke walked off the court after a 78-74 loss to Clemson Saturday night at Bobcats Arena, the team looked disappointed, but not dejected.
Yes, the Blue Devils (27-5) fell short of the conference tournament final for the second straight year after reaching that game the previous nine seasons. No, head coach Mike Kryzewski said, his team is not quite finished with this season just yet.
Krzyzewski insisted in a postgame press conference that he was happy with No. 7 Duke's performance against the Tigers (24-9), who lost in the title game Sunday to No. 1 North Carolina. The coach said he had "no complaints" with his team and is comfortable with where it stands heading into the NCAA Tournament. Duke received a No. 2 seed in the West Region, the NCAA selection committee announced Sunday.
"There are games that you lose, and there are games that the other guy wins," Krzyzewski said. "I just thought today was one of those days when the other guy won. We played winning basketball.
"They made a few more plays than us. And they hit their free throws. When they hit their free throws, they're as good as anybody. We had some looks that we just missed."
In March, when the game is on the line, good teams have to win at the line.
And Clemson-whose recent history from the charity stripe has cost it regular-season, program-boosting victories-showed its maturity in Saturday's second half when it knocked down 13 of its 17 free throws. By doing so, the Tigers shut the door on the Blue Devils, who were in prime position to win even as the clock wound down on their ACC championship aspirations.
With 47 seconds left in the contest, point guard Greg Paulus drained a contested 3-pointer to pull Duke to within two at 71-69. Clemson head coach Oliver Purnell appeared noticeably worried on the sidelines-and it wasn't just because of the puddle of water growing to his left from the rainstorms that had busted a leak in the arena's roof. Purnell knew his team would need to overcome its Achilles' heel to pull off a herculean win over a team to which it had lost 22 consecutive times.
But guard Cliff Hammmonds, who entered the game as a 46-percent free-throw shooter, hit four of the team's six foul shots in the closing seconds to seal the victory. With the win, Clemson reached the ACC Tournament finals for the first time since 1962.
"We've been talking about it all year. Free throws are going to be big for us in a big-time situation," Hammonds said. "We knew that if we step to the line with confidence, and step to the line like we're going to knock them down each and every time, they're going to drop. And that's the way I went to the line."
The Tigers shot at a 51-percent clip from the field for the night and 37 percent from beyond the arc, but the team really shined in the paint, where frontcourt starters Sam Perry, Trevor Booker and James Mays combined for 40 points and 16 rebounds.
The Blue Devils' starting forwards Kyle Singler and Lance Thomas, on the other hand, were held to a collective two points and four rebounds on the night.
"Our emphasis against Duke-and everybody who plays them says-you take the ball inside," Purnell said. "It's hard to do because they put so much pressure on the basketball, but [Booker] did a great job sealing inside, and we were able to get him the ball and he was able to deliver. So we were able to attack that weakness. It's easy to know what the weakness is, but it's hard to do."
Krzyzewski said that Singler looked tired over the weekend. The ACC Rookie of the Year scored seven points in 43 minutes in Duke's two contests in Charlotte.
"He's had a lot of pressure, physical and otherwise, placed on him to play at such a high level," Krzyzewski said. "We need to get him refreshed because his two games here-it's like a gallant effort-but you could tell he just didn't have his legs and wasn't fresh."
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