Playing their second game in just over 36 hours, the 12th-seeded Tigers built an early double-digit lead before falling 84-76 to the fifth-seeded Mountaineers in the second round of the NCAA tournament on Thursday.
Darryl Bryant scored 19 points and Kevin Jones added 17 as West Virginia (21-11) overcame a slow start in the early-afternoon matchup. The Mountaineers will play fourth-seeded Kentucky in the next round.
Clemson coach Brad Brownlee refused to complain about the fast turnaround his team had to make after beginning tournament in Dayton, Ohio, but he raised the issue afterward about whether such an early starting time is fair to a team in those circumstances.
"I don't know. We certainly were ready to go early," Brownell said. "I mean, 12:15 is less than ideal. I certainly hope they address it for the student athletes' sake, because there is a wearing effect on the game."
Bryant's four-point play and a long 3-pointer by Jones that tied it 40-40 at the half highlighted a game-changing 28-8 run that enabled West Virginia to turn a 10-point deficit into a 57-47 lead. The closest Clemson (22-12) would get the rest of the way was three.
That's when Dalton Pepper stepped up for West Virginia.
Spearheading the 1-3-1 defense the Mountaineers used to force Clemson into burning the clock while working for shots, the sophomore guard made two steals at midcourt that he turned into a dunk and layup. They allowed the Mountaineers to finish the job.
"We were mixing up defenses and we were getting in the passing lanes and stuff," said Dalton, who finished with 10 points on 4 of 4 shooting in 17 minutes. "I don't think they were ready for it, and we just caught them off guard and got a few steals."
Andre Young scored 22 points for Clemson, which beat Alabama-Birmingham in the opening round of the tournament in Dayton, then boarded a plane for a middle-of-the-night flight to Florida to face a team that hadn't played in eight days.
Clemson arrived at its hotel in Tampa around 5 a.m. and spent the rest of Wednesday balancing the the need for rest while also preparing for an opponent that had not played since losing in the second round of the Big East tournament last week.
Brownell estimated he got about three hours of sleep.
"We seemed a little bit slow at the end in the second half. We didn't respond like we needed to, maybe as competitively as we've been in certain situations," Brownell said.
"I mean, we didn't lose the game because the game started at 12:15," he said. "We're just not as deep, so it's hard for us. We don't bring a lot of guys off the bench to be able to rest guys for very long. ... But West Virginia played well. They only turned the ball over 11 times, made free throws, were very opportunistic offensively, and they guard you."
Young, who made a big 3-pointer to give Clemson a chance, felt mental fatigue was a factor.
"We just didn't pay enough attention to detail, and we just didn't do a good enough job defensively and getting rebounds because that's how they got a lot their points," said Young, who was 6 of 10 from the field and made all six of his free throws.
The 5-foot-9 guard scored 10 of Clemson's first 15 points and the Tigers bolted to an early 10-point lead that eventually dwindled to one. Stitt led another surge to rebuild the advantage to 39-29 with less three minutes remaining in the opening half.
West Virginia closed the gap in a hurry, with five different players scoring during a burst that enabled the Mountaineers to pull even at the break. Jones extended the run with a tip-in that gave his team its first lead, and Bryant finished it with a four-point play that dumped Clemson into a 52-43 hole that the Tigers couldn't escape.
Joe Mazzulla scored 12 points for West Virginia, including two free throws that put the Mountaineers up 76-71 with 1:43 to go. Pepper's steals on consecutive Clemson possessions thwarted any chance for a Tigers comeback.
West Virginia coach Bob Huggins was asked about the defensive adjustment he made to key the final burst that sealed the victory.
"I didn't do anything. We went one-three-one to burn clock. They were attacking us off the bounce, and we didn't do a very good job of containing penetration," he said. "We just thought, when you go to one-three-one late, it takes more time to get a good shot.
"I've been kind of talking to Pep, and he's never played on the top until, whatever it was, three weeks ago maybe. He was always playing on the wing before," Huggins said. "We're just trying to get him to stay between the ball and the next guy. I honestly didn't even see what happened the first time. ... But those were big for us."