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Jack in the Box - Hot Happens for Tech's Clinch

March 11, 2009

By Jack Wilkinson

If Georgia Tech has a shot, it belongs to Lewis Clinch and serves as the ideal metaphor for Tech’s chances in the ACC Tournament. A long shot.

It’s the long-range jumper Clinch has hit with such recent regularity, the 3-point arc almost seems like a layup line. It’s the 3-balls Clinch practices religiously a few hours before every game, from nine spots in an arc around the floor. It’s the treys the Jackets now need to extend this most wayward of seasons, and Clinch needs to prolong his college career.

“Anything’s possible,” says Clinch.

Don’t laugh. Shots happen.

“In this league, this year, as long as you get the right guy hot, anything can happen,” Tech assistant coach Pete Zaharis said Wednesday after practice in the Georgia Dome, where Tech plays Clemson Thursday at 2:30 p.m. in the ACC’s first round. “If Lewis is hot, anything’s possible. It’s like a hot goaltender in hockey, or an ace pitcher. You get the right guy going, and…”

Zaharis smiled. Hey, hot happens.

Ask Wake Forest, or Clemson. Ask North Carolina, or especially Miami. Against that foursome, in games between Feb. 18 and March 4, Clinch became the first Jacket since Matt Harpring in 1998 to score more than 20 points in four consecutive games.

The breakdown: 24 at Wake. 27 at Clemson. 22 in the Dean Dome. All three, defeats on the road. And finally a career-high 30 points against Miami on Senior Night in Alexander Memorial Coliseum, in a 78-68 upset of the `Canes.

The common thread in all four? The 3: During that stretch, Clinch made 50.9 per cent of his 3-pointers (27-for-53), the most prolific four-game 3-pointer stretch in Tech history. Overall in those four games, Clinch made 48.1 per cent of all his field goal attempts (37-for-77). For the season, Clinch — who was academically ineligible for the fall semester — is shooting 32.8 per cent (59-for-180) from the arc in 22 games. In 16 conference games, he’s hit 34.8 percent (49-for-141).

Even when Clinch cooled off last Saturday at Boston College (5-for-17 from the floor, just 2-for-12 from beyond the arc), he still led Tech with 16 points. The last two, a pair of free throws with 12 seconds left, gave Tech a 66-65 lead before BC’s Rakim Sanders stuck a step-back corner jumper with 1.7 seconds to break Tech’s heart.

That left the Jackets with a 2-14 ACC record, Tech’s worst conference mark since 1981’s 0-14 winless winter. That doesn’t deter Clinch a bit. Not even as a 12th seed. Not even if Tech’s too often seemed the 12th of never.

“We’re real capable of beating anyone,” Clinch insisted. “We’re here in our backyard. We’ll have a lot of support [Thursday]. “Right now,” he said, “everyone’s 0-0.”

Including Clemson, which torched Tech 73-59 in Littlejohn Coliseum, then rallied from a 15-point first-half deficit for an 81-73 win in Atlanta.

“If we win, Clemson’s going home,” said the 6-foot-3 senior from Cordele. “I think Clemson’s a team we’re capable of beating. If we can control Trevor Booker [the Tigers’ physical 6-foot-7 forward who leads the ACC in rebounding and field goal percentage] and shoot the ball [well], I think we have a very good chance to advance.”

Particularly if Clinch shoots as he did on Senior Night. He had 20 of his 30 points by halftime that evening, and his nine 3-pointers [in 16 attempts] tied Tony Akins for second all-time in Tech treys in a game — trailing only Dennis Scott’s 11.

“You feel like you’re not being guarded,” Clinch said that night, when asked how it feels to be in such a shooting zone. “The rim seems as big as the ocean.” Not the measly Atlantic Ocean. His was an enormous Pacific rim that evening.

Clinch’s nine 3-pointers are the most in an ACC game this season. They were no accident, either.

“It feels,” he said in that post-game glow, “like your hard work paid off.”

Over the last three weeks, Clinch has honed his shooting even more than he usually does — which is to say, zealously. Zaharis helps. Even if he downplays his role.

“Honestly, I’m just the rebound guy,” the coach said. “It’s about getting Lewis to relax. I’ll give him credit. He sat down and looked at [game films of] himself as a sophomore and a junior.”

In those seasons, Clinch shot 47.6 and 33.3 per cent, respectively, on 3-pointers (although his sophomore season was cut short after 14 games when Clinch was suspended for the spring semester following a violation of school policy). This season, with the arc moved back a foot to 20 feet, 9 inches, Clinch has worked on his footwork even more than usual.

“He always talks about footwork, and getting his feet under him so he gets the power from his legs,” Zaharis said after that Senior Night sizzle. “You can tell from his stroke, it’s free and easy.”

Tipoff time that night was 7:30. Clinch got out of his last class and met Zaharis at Alexander at 2 p.m. that afternoon. For 25 minutes, they worked together. Clinch took five 3-point shots from each of nine sports in the half-court: Left corner, left wing, left elbow, left of the top of the key, top of the key, right of the top of the key, right elbow, right wing, right corner. Then he took five shots from each of seven sports inside the arc, eliminating the long 3’s from the left and right of the top of the circle. He also ran “Iverson Drills,” running along the baseline, first right, then left, to catch and shoot. And then coming off screens on the elbow, going both left and right.

“I’m a glorified rebounder,” Zaharis said that night, laughing. “If he wants me to keep rebounding ’til the cows come home, that’s OK. He’s on a great tear.”

Clinch was exhausted that evening. With just under 5:00 to play, he cramped up badly and had to be carried off the court by Gani Lawal and Zachery Peacock. Clinch returned to the game with 3:30 to play, rejoiced at game’s end, went to the post-game interview session and then, barefoot but still in his uniform, trudged slowly to the locker room.

Once he’d showered and dressed, Clinch sat on a sofa in the players lounge where his family awaited him: His mother, Dorothy Bryant, who drove up from Cordele, then left at 11 p.m. for the long drive home to South Georgia.

“I do this every game,” she said, beaming and still wearing her gold and white corsage. “And I have to be at work at 7 a.m.”

Dorothy’s sister and brother were there, along with two of Clinch’s nieces and a nephew. His girlfriend, Stephanie Smith, was there with their nine-month-old son, Brice. Stephanie had a present for Clinch, too: A keepsake scrapbook she’d compiled, going back to his high school and AAU days, with vintage photographs of those times and game photos from Tech.

Clinch looked at the book wide-eyed, slowly turning the pages. He loved it. He loved what Stephanie had written, too: inspirational sayings and passages to accompany various photos. Including: “Victory belongs to the most persevering.”

“This is nice,” Clinch said. “These are memories right here.”

A photo of Brice, accompanied by: “I’m So Glad You’re My Dad.”

“Thank God for your God-given talent. Thank yourself for your hard work.”

And this: “The game is my life. It demands loyalty and responsibility, and it gives me fulfillment and peace.”

“I knew he’d like that one,” Stephanie said.

On Thursday, there will be more hard work for Clinch to do. Just as there was Tuesday morning, when Clinch awoke at 7:15, had breakfast, then went to Alexander to shoot at 7:45. The role of glorified rebounder, normally played by Zaharis, was played by basketball administrative assistant Chris Jacobs. Clinch repeated that Wednesday morning, shooting at Tech before practicing at noon in the Dome, where Zaharis rebounded his makes and misses near the end of the workout. Come Thursday, Clinch will be in the coliseum at 8 a.m., shooting from around the floor before Tech heads to the Dome.

“That’s the advantage of being here in Atlanta,” Clinch said. He can shoot in the friendly confines of Alexander, honing his shot, relaxing.

“Once you shoot a couple of times, you’re fine,” Clinch said of the Dome’s shooting background under the big top. “As a shooter, you rely on your technique. If you focus on the rim, you’ll be fine, as a confident shooter.”

And Lewis Clinch is one confident shooter. “My only thoughts are about me climbing up and cutting down the nets,” he said. “I haven’t even thought about us losing. I’ve thought about us winning this tournament.”

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