March 5, 2009
GREENSBORO, N.C. – After winning seven straight games over Clemson, Georgia Tech may have been looking ahead to a rematch with No. 11 North Carolina.
The Tigers made them pay, pulling away in the second half to upset the Yellow Jackets 81-69 on Thursday in the opening round of the ACC tournament.
Freshman center Shaniqua Pauldo, making the first start of her collegiate career, responded with a career-high 23 points to lead the Tigers, whose only wins in the previous six weeks had come at the expense of Western Carolina and Charleston Southern. Clemson (14-16) advances to Friday’s 11 a.m. quarterfinal against fourth-seeded North Carolina.
“We felt we underachieved as a team in the last month of the season,” Clemson coach Cristy McKinney said. “We looked at this as a new season.”
Before this morning, teams seeded five or more places higher than their opponents had been 60-4 in tournament history. Included in that were the first three meetings of fifth and 12th seeds. The favorites won those by 65 total points.
The Tigers overcame a stretch of early turnovers to stabilize and ultimately catch and pull away from the Jackets. Tech had reason to believe it could create problems for Clemson with a half-court trap, but the Tigers beat it decisively twice in the critical 15-4, second-half run. The surge turned a 40-39 deficit into a 54-44 lead with 14:31 left.
The Yellow Jackets never got closer than seven the rest of the way.
“It was more about composure,” said guard Lele Hardy, who had 10 points and eight rebounds. “We weren’t trying to force things. We were trying to make the easy play, the easy pass and just do what was best for us.”
Those efforts, Pauldo’s low-post presence and 18-for-19 foul shooting rendered irrelevant the Tigers’ 1-for-11 shooting from the 3-point line.
Pauldo picked an excellent time for the best game of her life. After averaging 3.6 points per regular-season conference game, she asserted herself on the right block and as an aggressive offensive rebounder. Perhaps her most important contribution came with 2:19 left, when she beat the shot clock with a runner in the lane that repelled a brief Jacket comeback bid.
“I knew (McKinney) believed in me,” Pauldo said. “I wanted to be the go-to post player and to help my team win.”
The news was doubly troubling for Georgia Tech, which lost leading scorer Alex Montgomery, who had a team-high 17 points, for the final two minutes with an apparent knee or ankle injury. Montgomery, a third-team All-ACC player averaging 13.6 points per game, was carried from the floor to the bench by teammates and medical staffers. The extent of the damage could not be immediately ascertained.
Notes: The Tigers’ 3-point shooting was not the worst in tournament history. Three teams have failed to make a 3-pointer altogether. Duke won the 2004 title game while going 0-for-9 from downtown…. The Tigers’ 18-for-19 performance at the foul line was the second-best in tournament history among teams attempting more than 15 freebies. Duke went 19-for-20 in the 2007 semifinals.