CLEMSON, S.C. — For K.J. McDaniels, his first double-double couldn’t have come at a better time.
Clemson’s high-flying, 6-foot-6 junior had a career-high 21 points and 10 rebounds to lead the Tigers to 71-57 victory over rival South Carolina on Sunday night.
The Tigers are off to a 3-0 start for only the second time in coach Brad Brownell’s four seasons, rallying after they watched the Gamecocks (1-2) cut a 13-point lead to 40-30 with 13 minutes remaining in the game. That’s when McDaniels took control, scoring seven points in 10-2 spurt that put Clemson on top to stay.
“Our energy was on. We got the team together and we said, ‘We have to go now. We can’t wait,’ ” McDaniels said. “We only get to play them once a year. We’ve got to go out there and play as hard as we can and get this crowd going.”
No one on Clemson’s roster does that better than McDaniels. He took a pass from former Laney standout Rod Hall for a dunk to get the run started. After Hall’s three-point play, McDaniels followed with one of his own. He closed the charge with another jam as the Tigers moved in front 50-40.
“K.J. was terrific, best player on the floor,” Brownell said.
McDaniels surpassed his career best in points for the second time in three games for the Tigers. He scored 20 points in the season-opening win over Stetson on Nov. 8 to top his previous best of 17. He also had half the team’s 12 blocks.
Jordan Roper added 15 points and Hall had 14 for Clemson, which beat the Gamecocks (1-2) for the eighth time in the past 10 meetings.
Mindaugas Kacinas had 13 points and 12 rebounds to lead South Carolina.
The win was also a welcome start to most of the orange-clad fans in Littlejohn Coliseum as the Palmetto State’s biggest rivalry perks up the next few weeks. On Wednesday night, the women’s basketball teams square off here in a contest that reunites former Virginia teammates in Dawn Staley (coach of the Gamecocks) and first-year Clemson coach Audra Smith.
On Nov. 30 comes the rivalry’s highlight when Steve Spurrier’s 12th-ranked football Gamecocks will try to extend their four-game winning streak over No. 7. Clemson at Williams-Brice Stadium.
Hall said Brownell had “drilled it in our heads that some of our other sports haven’t done well against (South Carolina). I wanted to change that.”
South Carolina, which fell at No. 23 Baylor 66-64 on Tuesday and had hoped to play strongly against Clemson. But second-year coach Frank Martin said his roster that features seven freshmen still has a ways to go before it plays polished and effective basketball.
“I think some of the guys think this is easier than it really is,” Martin said. “They’ve got to learn.”
Clemson finished 24 of 26 from the foul line, a remarkable 92.3 percent. Still, it was a shy of the team’s all-time best of 22 of 23 set in a win over Duke in 1997.
Clemson and South Carolina both came into the season looking to bounce back from awful showings a year ago.
The Tigers lost 10 of their final 11 games to finish 13-18 for their first losing season in nine years. The Gamecocks went just 14-18 in 2012-13 and gave Frank Martin his only losing season as a college head coach.
The two rivals also have extremely young rosters. The only senior in the rotation for either team was South Carolina guard Brenton Williams, although Clemson’s started veterans Hall, McDaniels and Damarcus Harrison, while the Gamecocks opened with four newcomers in their starting five.
That showed in the opening half as the Tigers experience gradually took control with a 17-5 run to build a 26-13 lead.
Sophomores Adonis Filer and Jordan Roper had 3s and McDaniels a pair of put-back jams. Filer closed the surge with a short jumper.
South Carolina didn’t score for nearly seven minutes, going 0 of 5 from the field with two turnovers as Clemson moved in front.
The Gamecocks found their touch down the stretch and cut the lead to 35-26 at the break on Kacinas’ tip-in with less than a second left.