March 13, 2009
By Jack Wilkinson
He’d been hounded all afternoon. One, two, three, four different defenders marked him. The primary one, 6-9 Chris Singleton, with the wingspan of a pterodactyl, is six inches taller than Lewis Clinch.
Indeed, Florida State threw everything at Clinch plus the Kitchen sink. And even then, Clinch and his Georgia Tech mates nearly kept hope alive.
But sometimes, it isn’t what it isn’t. Especially this winter.
Even when FSU’s Derwin Kitchen took a sideline inbounds pass and went baseline to hit a reverse layup, even when Kitchen sank a free throw to complete the three-point play and give FSU a 64-62 lead, 7.7 seconds still remained. Plenty of time for Clinch, a catch-and-shoot incendiary device this past month, to conjure yet another 3-ball and prolong Tech’s season and the bright twilight of his college career.
Never happened. Clinch never touched the ball again. Instead, after freshman guard Iman Shumpert came off a high ball screen at the top of the key, after Shumpert misfired in the lane and the horn sounded, there was Clinch on the right wing: Bent over, hands on his knees, head bowed, heart broken. He stood there for what seemed the longest time, while FSU exhaled and savored its advance into Saturday’s semifinals of the ACC Tournament.
For 10, 20, 30 seconds, Clinch stood there thinking, “It’s actually over.” His remarkable run these past four weeks; his abbreviated, ACC loss-after-ACC loss senior season; his pie-in-the-sky hopes of the unlikeliest of ACC Tournament titles; and his tenure at Tech. Poof. Just like that.
“I know I’ll never wear a Yellow Jackets uniform again,” said Clinch, number 0 in your program, No. 1 on every opponent’s list of defensive priorities in recent weeks. “That’s a tough pill to swallow.”
Especially 24 hours after his career-high 32 points powered Tech to an upset of Clemson. Seven more 3-pointers Friday, 25 more points turned Clinch’s final half-dozen games into a 151-point six-pack. That’s an average of 25.1 per game. That wasn’t enough to extend Tech’s season that ended 12-19 overall, 2-14 in regular-season ACC play.
“It was tough for me to realize,” Clinch recalled of his last seconds on a court in Tech colors, “that it was finally over.”
For this relief, no thanks. Not for Clinch and not for his teammates, even after losing 12 of 13 consecutive ACC games in January and February.
“I’m happy that these guys gave us everything they had all year, except for maybe three games,” Tech coach Paul Hewitt said. “Three games out of 31. Especially for our seniors, the way the thing [season] was going, they could’ve packed it in and thought about themselves, their futures. They didn’t.”
Not Clinch, whose career included a 20-game suspension for violating institutional policy as a sophomore, and academic ineligibility last fall that caused him to miss this season’s first seven games.
Certainly not Alade Aminu, the ebullient, 6-10 part-time starter who ranked fifth in the ACC in rebounding (8.3 per game) and sixth in field goal percentage (52.5 per cent).
“I felt like I should’ve blocked that shot,” Aminu said nearly 45 minutes after Friday’s loss. When Kitchen caught the inbounds pass, left Shumpert in his wake and went baseline, Aminu smartly helped on defense. Just not quite enough.
“I think I got caught in the net [with his hand],” Aminu said. “I could’ve saved my team.” Instead of his fifth block of the night, however, he picked up his third personal foul. Kitchen then completed a killing, 3-point play.
As Aminu talked while walking in a corridor in the bowels of the Georgia Dome, he slowed when some Wake Forest players came out of their locker room, already in uniform with their tip-off still two hours away. Aminu stopped, shook hands with his younger brother Al-Farouq, and wished Wake’s precocious 6-9 freshman forward good luck.
“It’s weird,” Alade said, walking again toward the team bus. “It’s weird, it’s weird. I’ve been in college four years. All good things must come to an end. I’m looking to the future. I’ve been invited to Portsmouth (the April invitational tournament in Portsmouth, Va., where possible NBA draftees play and audition for pro scouts).”
On Friday, Aminu looked back. “I wanted a whole lot this year, expecting a whole lot of myself,” he said. “I wanted to average a double-double.” He didn’t-didn’t. “I wanted to be on a Top Ten team.” He wasn’t.
“Then we started losing all those close games.”
Three ACC defeats in overtime, two by four points, one by five. Two ACC losses by a point. All heartbreakers.
“I marvel especially at our seniors, at their resiliency,” Hewitt said. “I’ve been around seniors a long time. Some have thrown in the towel. They didn’t.”
Neither did their coach. Not that it was always easy. Just over a week ago, Hewitt called a friend who’s on the staff at Notre Dame. Irish head coach Mike Brey had a similarly gutwrenching season three years ago, when Notre Dame lost eight of nine games in one stretch — all by five points or less.
“I was just curious,” Hewitt said. “How did he do it? How did Mike not lose his mind?”
Brey stayed positive. As Hewitt has somehow succeeded in doing this season. “We did more motivational tricks this year than any time in my life,” he said. “Anything to fire `em up. It worked.”
Hewitt could hardly ever fault his players’ effort. Nor, for the most part, their defense. In Tech’s last two defeats, the one-point loss at Boston College and Friday to Florida State, “The number one option for both games — Tyrese Rice and Toney Douglas –, they didn’t touch the ball,” Hewitt said. Neither star guard got the ball on those final possessions. Yet both times, Tech lost in excruciating fashion.
“They clawed and scratched and made us work for everything that we got,” said FSU coach Leonard Hamilton, his 4th-seeded `Noles now 24-8 and facing No. 1 North Carolina in Saturday’s semifinals. “They pressed us and trapped us. They forced us into 19 turnovers — and we prepared for that press and trap all week.”
As for Clinch, Hamilton fairly gushed: “Lewis Clinch did not want his season to end. We’ve been able to defend most people this year, but we had a difficult time keeping up with him and contesting him. And even when we got good contested defense on him, he hit real good shots…
“We’ve done a pretty good job when we focus on one particular person that we have to contain,” Hamilton said. “But we really didn’t have an answer for him. He was releasing it quick, releasing it under pressure, he was poised, he gave us good shot fakes. He got us off our feet when he knew that we had to contest his shot. “
“Tremendous,” Hamilton summarized Clinch’s performance. “He did not want this game to be his last one.”
Yet it was, to Clinch’s dismay. Not that he faulted Shumpert’s shot, or his coach’s call. Not at all. “We just wanted to run a back screen on the ball [for Shumpert],” Hewitt said. “In both of these games, Iman had a lot of success getting into the high paint area and either getting fouled or making the shot, When he took it, I though for a second that Zachery [Peacock] was open behind him for a kickout, but he wasn’t.”
Also, with 7.7 seconds remaining, the Jackets had to go the length of the court with no timeouts left. Hewitt called his next-to-last with 4:55 left after a Tech basket cut the deficit to 59-56, and his last timeout with 1:12 to play and the Jackets trailing 61-60 to set his offense. Clinch launched one last, long, off-the-mark 3-pointer with just under a minute to play.
Peacock stuck a turnaround, fallaway baseline jumper to give Tech its last lead at 66-61. Then came Kitchen’s decisive 3-point play, and finally Shumpert’s last-gasp jumper.
“Definitely,” Clinch said when asked if he’d hoped to take Tech’s last shot. “I’m a competitor. I always like to take that tough shot. But Iman had a great look, and he’s a great competitor.”
The shot didn’t fall. The Jackets did. Clinch didn’t crumble, but his heart was heavy, his college career over.