March 13, 2009
By Jack Wilkinson
His was a cell phone epiphany. A month ago, Lewis Clinch was talking on the phone with his mother, as Dorothy Bryant and her son are often wont to do. A few days earlier, Clinch and Georgia Tech had been humiliated at home by N.C. State, a 21-point St. Valentine’s Day massacre. Now the Jackets were bound for Wake Forest and another certain defeat.
And Lewis Clinch was running out of time.
“He said, `Mom, I’m in my senior year and I haven’t accomplished any of the goals I wanted to,'” Bryant recalled.
Clinch didn’t make the ACC All-Freshman team, but was honorable mention in 2006. He’s never played in an NCAA Tournament game. He’d only won one ACC Tournament game. Making the All-ACC team? Please. Competing for an ACC Tournament title, perhaps even an NCAA championship? Puh-leeze.
And now Clinch’s senior season seemed a sinkhole, his pro hopes probably a pipe dream. Heading to Wake Forest, Tech had lost four straight ACC games, 10 of 11 overall in conference play. Clinch had five regular-season games left before a likely one-and-done ACC Tournament in the Georgia Dome.
No matter. On the phone from back home in Cordele, Dorothy Bryant urged her son to not give up on his senior season or his dreams. Keep working hard. Keep practicing, and taking and making, that sweet jump shot. She told Lewis to literally keep the faith, and prescribed a classic bromide: Take `em one at a time.
And look at Lewis Clinch now. “I think he was just super,” Dorothy
Bryant beamed in the Dome late Thursday afternoon. “Lewis had said,
“Mom, we can’t just lose three times to the same team.'”
No, Georgia Tech didn’t lose a third straight to Clemson. Clinch wouldn’t permit it. Already in the midst of an historic Tech scoring spree, the senior guard even topped himself this time. Eight days after a 30-point Senior Night to remember in an upset of Miami, Clinch scored 32 to stun fifth-seeded Clemson 86-81 in the first round of the ACC Tournament.
After his two free throws with 6.9 seconds left clinched it, after the final horn sounded and Tech partisans roared, Clinch raised his right arm, his right index finger, and turned toward his mother and family in the stands. Dorothy returned that No. 1 salute. When Clinch reached her, Dorothy hugged him, hugged him hard, and said, “Congratulations, son.”
And then this superior mother said this: “5…4…3…2…1.” As in, five games left. Then four. Then…
And finally this: “Another day, another shot…”
And another game — at least — left in Clinch’s college career. He’s on a sizzling, singular streak: 24 points at Wake on Feb. 18, then 27 versus Clemson and 22 against North Carolina in the Dean Dome. All that in losing efforts on the road. Then came those nine 3-pointers on Senior Night, the most in any ACC game this season and good enough for just Tech’s second win in conference play. A bittersweet 16-point effort at Boston College in a one-point loss was merely a blip.
It’s amazing what a motherly hug — even long-distance via phone — will do. “I really relied on praying, and working hard,” Clinch said of his subsequent success. He’s put in extra work on his jumper, both before and after practices, shooting hundreds and hundreds of 3-balls from nine spots on the court, usually under the watchful eyes and encouraging words of Tech assistant coach Pete Zaharis.
“I’m a glorified rebounder, Zaharis said, laughing and downplaying his role. “It’s just to help him relax.”
Relaxation is a luxury no opposing defense can now afford. Not when Clinch is on the court, on fire, as he’s been for a month. “Any time I can catch Lewis open, I’ll break everything off and get him the ball — even in the middle of a possession,” said Moe Miller. Who was that unmasked man Thursday in the Dome? Miller, the sophomore point guard who played his first game without the face mask he’d worn after severely breaking his nose on Dec. 14.
“I love it,” Miller — who had eight assists and four turnovers in 23 minutes Thursday, and ran the offense superbly — said of Clinch’s continued combustible shooting: 11-for-20 from the floor, 5-for-12 from the 3-point arc [4-for-7 after halftime] and 5-for-5 from the foul line.
“Lewis creates [opportunities] for everybody,” Miller said. “He comes off screens and sometimes he’s got three people [defenders] running at him.”
Little wonder that Tech coach Paul Hewitt kept crying out “Zero! Zero!” and literally calling Clinch’s uniform number — and Tech offensive sets — throughout the game.
“I try to watch his feet,” Miller said of Clinch, “and deliver it to him so once he catches it, he goes straight up.”
It’s all part of Clinch’s personal catch-and-release program. He often receives the pass and, without dribbling, rises and launches a 3. His 32 points Thursday are the third-most ever scored by a Yellow Jacket in the ACC Tournament. Only Will Bynum, who had 35 in 2005, and Mark Price (33 in 1983) scored more.
“He’s been a big-time player for us for a long time,” Hewitt said of Clinch. “He’s had some issues [a spring semester-long suspension in Clinch’s sophomore year, and academic ineligibility last fall semester that caused him to miss the first seven games], coming back from injuries. If he’s on the court consistently, this is what you see from him.”
“I’m a shooter, and that’s what I’m expected to do,” Clinch said. “If they give me open looks, I’m supposed to knock it down.”
Especially when he’s in his comfort zone, in every sense. “I feel like I’m right in my backyard,” Clinch said. “Campus is five minutes away [from the Dome].
“One thing that really helped is shooting [in practice] with the balls that we’re gonna play with in the tournament,” he said. To help break in the new brand of basketballs used in the ACC Tournament, Tech has been using them in practice. “It has a different grip,” said Clinch, who’s now accustomed to that and can literally grip it and rip off jumper after jumper.
He’ll do that again Friday morning, in the familiar confines of Alexander Memorial Coliseum, shooting jump shots before Tech’s practice and afterward until the Jackets bus it to the Dome. FSU, whose senior guard Toney Douglas of Jonesboro was a first-team All-ACC selection, barely held off Tech 62-58 on Feb. 5 in Tallahassee.
In that game, Clinch scored five points on 2-for-11 shooting, just 1-for-7 from beyond the arc. This time, despite turning his right ankle Thursday with less than three minutes to play and holding it while writhing on the court, Dorothy Bryant’s son will be ready. Ready and waiting to prolong Tech’s season and his career, to take another step toward another personal accomplishment.
“In high school, I never cut down a net,” said Clinch, a Class AAA first-team all-state player at Crisp County High, yet never part of a state titleist. “I’m really trying to get that first championship.”
Another day, another shot…