- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 18, 2009

CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) - Almost from the moment they walked off the court in Tampa last March as first-round NCAA losers, Clemson stars K.C. Rivers and Trevor Booker longed for the moment they could finally put that devastating defeat to 12th-seeded Villanova behind them.

They thought they could back in January when the Tigers opened 16-0 and seemed poised to finally deliver on their early promise. They thought it might happen after a dominating 27-point victory over No. 4 Duke in February. They hope it’s Thursday when seventh-seeded Clemson (23-8) opens the NCAA tournament in Kansas City against Michigan (20-13), a No. 10 seed.

The past few seasons, Clemson’s always been the club that starts fast and ends with a thud. It happened again this year when the Tigers lost six of their final 10 games after beating the Blue Devils.

“I’m not sure where to point the finger, but I know it’s a new beginning,” said Booker, Clemson’s leading scorer and rebounder. “It’s win or go home now. We’ve got to put everything behind us and go play ball.”

Clemson’s had to rally itself several times in the past 12 months since the NCAA defeat.

Last year’s NCAA team lost two of its core players in guard Cliff Hammonds and James Mays. Rivers, a junior, considered leaving early for the NBA last spring before coming back for one last try at big time success.

When this year’s perfect start was spoiled by back-to-back losses to Wake Forest and North Carolina _ the Tigers’ fell to 0-54 at Chapel Hill _ Clemson recovered to win three in a row, the last of which was against Duke.

That’s when things took an all too familiar turn. The Tigers blew a 19-point second-half lead at home to Florida State. They lost to ACC bottom dweller Virginia, part of their February fade. Things blew up in Atlanta last week after Clemson’s first-round ACC tournament loss to last place Georgia Tech.

Rivers was not about to watch another stellar opening dissolve into questions of what went wrong. When the players returned to campus, there were a series of unifying, clear-the-air meetings and intense, up-tempo practices.

The self analysis and hard work has seemed to pay off, Rivers said.

“Things happen for a reason,” he said.

Rivers and Booker have led Clemson’s play this season, combining for nearly 30 points and 16 rebounds a game. Booker, a 6-foot-7 power forward, excels at the thunder finish, rattling rims throughout the ACC this season. Rivers, at 6-foot-5, is a slasher-shooter who can bang underneath or hit from the outside.

The Tigers have problems when those two aren’t in sync.

Booker took only eight shots at Florida State back in February and the Tigers lost 73-66. Rivers went 4-of-14 in the ACC tourney loss to Georgia Tech.

When Clemson can get the ball to Booker in his prime clobbering spot near the hoop, the junior tends to drift to the outside and put up often harmless fadeaways.

Clemson coach Oliver Purnell said he and his staff dissected the Yellow Jackets game for two or three days seeking solutions. The conclusion?

“We’ve got to play better defense,” he said. “It’s got to start and end with defense for us, and if we don’t have that as an anchor we’re going to struggle beating teams at this level.”

Michigan, playing its first NCAA game in 11 years, has a strong duo of its own in guard Manny Harris and forward DeShawn Sims. They’ve accounted for better than 32 points and nearly 14 rebounds a game this season and are sure to be the focus of the Tigers’ recommitted defensive effort.

Having Harris and Sims is “the good news,” Wolverines coach John Beilein said. “The bad news is, at this level, everybody’s got a lot of bullets in their glove.”

Especially when they shoot as well as Clemson’s Rivers and Booker can.

Rivers, part of a record 91 victories in his Tigers career, is the school’s all-time leader with 280 3-pointers. Booker led the ACC with a .567 shooting percentage.

Rivers thinks the cohesion is back _ and that’s a good sign for a player who hopes to add a landmark NCAA run to his Clemson resume.

“You can see the excitement in everybody’s face,” Rivers said. “We’re ready to get back and play.”

___

AP Sports Writer Larry Lage in Detroit contributed to this report.

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