CLEMSON, S.C. -- The unranked team was without its starting point guard, a gritty little guy with a streak of 62 straight starts until a bruised right foot forced him to the bench.
The other team, ranked sixth in the nation, was celebrating the debut of a glass-eating forward, a hungry transfer who had 21 months' worth of pent-up energy and anger to release.
Sounds like a mismatch, huh?
Sounds like a real bad time for Clemson, the unranked team missing Terrell McIntyre, to play South Carolina, the loftily placed team boasting LeRon Williams.
Picking a winner Wednesday night at Littlejohn Coliseum seemed a simple matter of addition and subtraction.
But somebody forgot to tell Vince Whitt. And Greg Buckner. And most definitely, somebody forgot to tell Harold Jamison.
The Clemson Tigers scrapped and clawed and somehow sent the Gamecocks home 62-57 losers on national television.
"They're very good, very deep," USC coach Eddie Fogler said. "Those kids don't get enough credit, three through nine. They have interchangeable parts. They're a lot more than just McIntyre."
Oh, Clemson obviously missed the man called "Boogie," the 5-foot-8 dervish who truly makes the big orange bus roll. And for the first 10 minutes or so, the Tigers looked as though they had no idea how to cope.
Cutters bumped into each other. Screens were soft and lazy. Johnny Miller, a born gunner, looked awkward and lost in his cameo running the point.
Gradually, the Tigers settled into their rhythm. They rediscovered the qualities that had carried them to the No. 2 ranking last January, that lifted them to the brink of the Elite Eight, that had been painfully missing so far this season.
They fought for every rebound.
They contested every shot.
They dove for every loose ball.
The extra work paid off with a 16-0 run over a span of eight minutes midway through the second half. A 38-34 deficit was transformed into a healthy working margin.
"We kind of played the way we did a year ago," Clemson coach Rick Barnes said. "Different guys made big plays for us."
Barnes had watched his team stumble through three losses in their first eight games. He'd seen the Tigers lose in three different time zones and look fairly ugly each time in the process.
Finally, Barnes decided he'd seen enough.
"I know you guys want to win; I want to win, too," he told the Tigers before Wednesday's game. "But I want us to make a statement to ourselves. All I care about is our half-court defense. That's all I care about. I want to see us control the paint, contest their shots. Let's do what we do."
Even with McIntyre on the bench, chomping on his gum and watching in street clothes, the Tigers threatened to embarrass the visitors, whom the San Antonio News-Express this week called "the nation's most overrated team."
With Clemson up 50-38, the place was going bonkers. Dickie V was yelling that it was time to start the bus. And the Tigers had the Gamecocks lined up for their annual December blowout.
The last three Clemson wins in this series had come by an average margin of 19 points. That this one didn't wind up a laugher, that it actually went down to the final few seconds, was a credit to USC.
You've heard of Sing-and-Snore Ernie, this year's must-buy Christmas doll? The Gamecocks coach turned into Frown-and-Scowl Eddie through Clemson's decisive second-half run.
Afterward, though, he was too proud of his kids' comeback to pout. And he was too impressed with a Tigers team that overcame one serious absence.
They may have lacked their Boogie, but they didn't forget to bring their soul.
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