CLEMSON, S.C. -- Rod Hall had the winning layup with 9.3 seconds left and then his quick thinking saved Clemson from potentially another late game disaster as the Tigers beat Illinois 50-49 in the second round of the NIT.
Tracy Abrams airballed a 3-pointer for the Illini with 1.7 seconds left, leaving Clemson (22-12) to inbound the ball under its own basket. The last time something similar happened on March 8, the Tigers turned it over and Pittsburgh tied the game on the way to an overtime win that may have done in Clemson's NCAA tournament chances.
This time the Tigers threw the ball long. It looked as if it was going to go over the endline without anyone touching it when Hall noted Landry Nnoko couldn't get there.
"Dude had Nnoko on a headlock down there. I had to get to it," said Hall, who sprinted, leaped and saved the ball, letting the clock run out.
"To recognize that and tip it back and save it, that was a phenomenal play," Clemson coach Brad Brownell said.
The Tigers will host Belmont on Tuesday and the winner will go to New York. Clemson is trying to make it to the NIT semifinals for second time in seven years.
The Illini (20-15) led just once on Jon Ekey's 3-pointer that gave them a 49-48 lead with 2:06 left. But coach John Groce said the team's ability to come back again on the road showed the type of resiliency that also helped them make the postseason for the first time in three seasons by overcoming an eight-game losing streak in the heart of the Big Ten season.
"We were able to weather that and play our best at the end," Groce said.
Rayvonte Rice led Illinois with 15 points, 13 of them coming in the second half. Ekey added 11 points, including hitting the only three 3-pointers Illinois made Sunday. The Illini shot 14 percent (3-of-21) on 3s, and Groce said that was the difference.
"I thought a lot of them were open. That's what they were giving us," Groce said. "But It happens."
Clemson turned the ball over 15 times to keep Illinois in it. But the Tigers also had 16 assists on their 20 baskets including several nifty plays as Illinois kept trying to get back in it.
After Illinois tied it for only the second time in the game at 35 with 10:38 to go, Damarcus Harrison got a backdoor dunk off a nifty no-look pass from Nnoko, then Harrison threw an alley-oop pass from 10 feet behind the backcourt line to K.J. McDaniel whose thunderous dunk nearly took the roof off of Littlejohn Coliseum and gave Clemson a 39-35 lead with nine minutes left.
Back-to-back buckets by the Illini again cut the deficit to one, and Clemson answered with another highlight reel play, this time with Rod Hall throwing another alley-oop to McDaniel to put the Tigers up 46-43 with 5:29 left.
It was Clemson's 13th game this season decided by five points or less, and the Tigers have won seven of them.
McDaniels led Clemson with 12 points, while Landry Nnoko had 11 points and eight rebounds.
A solid run in the NIT is a nice reward for a team little was expected from. Clemson was picked to finish 14th in the 15-team Atlantic Coast Conference, and might have made the NCAA tournament if it closed out the game against Pittsburgh or what ended up a one-point ACC quarterfinal loss to Duke.
"It shows how much hard work we've put in. We're going to keep fighting and grinding," McDaniel said.
Clemson fans also had a surprise of their own. They jammed Littlejohn for a rare 11 a.m. Sunday tip, filling almost every seat and leaving some people standing around the concourses all game.
"It was really special to come to Littlejohn and see 10,000 people," Brownell said. "I appreciate them going to church early."