Leading by 24 points with less than 15 minutes to play, Clemson was ready to coast into the NIT championship.
Not so fast, Tigers.
Xavier's furious comeback fell just short as Lenny Brown's 3-point attempt at the buzzer bounced off the rim and Clemson sneaked away with a 79-76 victory in Tuesday night's NIT semifinals.
"It's disconcerting to come all the way back and fritter it away at the end," Xavier coach Skip Prosser said, "But I think the character of this team is that we're not going to quit."
Clemson (20-14) certainly agrees. The Tigers built a 61-37 lead behind the shooting of Terrell McIntyre, who finished with 20 points. But the Musketeers (24-11) went on a 15-0 run to cut the lead to 61-52, then came all the way back and led 76-73 with 1:26 left on one of Brown's four 3-pointers.
The Tigers, though, hit six free throws down the stretch -- two apiece by Harold Jamison, Tom Wideman and Andrus Jurkunas -- and then held their breath as Brown's final 3-point attempt was off line at the buzzer.
"When we were up 21, we were certain they were going to make a run and we just had to counter it," Clemson first-year coach Larry Shyatt said, "which actually we didn't do too well."
Wideman's free throws with 29.3 seconds left put Clemson back on top 77-76, and Jurkunas added his two with 5.9 seconds remaining. Wideman went to the line hitting just 55 percent of his free throws.
| Terrell McIntyre scored 20 points to help Clemson hold on for the victory. (AP)|
"What a paradox for us o hit four key free throws after losing some heartbreaks at the foul line," Shyatt said after his team scored only 18 points in the final 14:48.
Clemson will play for the NIT title Thursday night against California (21-11), which beat Oregon 85-69 in the earlier semifinal. An announced crowd of 9,455 showed up for the semifinals at Madison Square Garden.
The Tigers are looking for their first postseason title of any kind since winning the Southern Conference 60 years ago.
They nearly lost the chance.
Clemson tried to regroup after Xavier's 15-0 run. Jamison, who finished with 16 points, dunked to make it 63-52, but he was called for a technical for handing the ball to Xavier's Aaron Turner after the play.
Posey, who scored all of his 14 points in the second half, then hit the technicals, Price and Brown hit 3-pointers, and Posey hit two more free throws to close the gap to 73-69 with 3:24 left.
Price then hit two free throws and Lumpkin, fouled on a 3-point attempt, hit all three free throws to tie it 73-all with 2:08 left.
Brown, who finished with 14 points, hit another 3-pointer, and the Musketeers led 76-73 before the Tigers went to the line and hung on for the win.
Lumpkin led Xavier with 16 points, and Price added 13. Xavier was 14-of-37 from 3-point range.
Tony Christie matched Jamison with 16 points for Clemson.
In the first half, the Tigers shot 56 percent from the field in taking a 40-29 halftime lead.
With Clemson trailing 21-15, McIntyre led an 18-1 run by the Tigers than put them ahead 33-22 lead with 3:25 left in the half. During the run, McIntyre had 12 points, including two 3-pointers.
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