- Associated Press - Saturday, January 18, 2014

CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) - Clemson forward K.J. McDaniels and his teammates took it a bit personally when the Tigers were picked to finish next-to-last in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

After Saturday’s 61-53 win over Wake Forest, Clemson (13-4, 4-1 ACC) is tied for second in the league and is ready for another week of confounding their critics.

“We came back from ACC media day and we had the paper in our hand. We saw we were 14th. I laughed. To prove those people wrong is a good feeling,” McDaniels said,

McDaniels scored 15 points and had a career-best 12 rebounds as the Tigers at 4-1 are off to their best start in the ACC since winning their first five league games in 1997_the last time Clemson went to the Sweet 16.

This week had all the potential for a letdown after Clemson beat Duke by 13. But the Tigers beat Virginia Tech and Wake Forest through their nation-leading defense. The Demon Deacons (12-6, 2-3) shot just 36.2 percent (21 of 58) on Saturday, matching Clemson’s field goal defense for the season exactly. Wake Forest’s 53 points almost matched the Division I leading 53.6 points a game Clemson came in allowing.

“I’m proud of the way our guys approached both games this week,” Tigers coach Brad Brownell said. “We didn’t play great all the time, but we played hard. We compete to our style. We compete to what we’re trying to do and it has put us in the position to win some games.”

Brownell wasn’t pleased with the predictions about his team either. But he understood. With Saturday’s win, Clemson matched its win total for all of last season with two months still to go.

“There’s a lot of question marks. We didn’t have a lot of guys coming back who were proven players. There’s no guarantee K.J. is going to play as well as he’s played,” Brownell said.

Things get tougher quickly for Clemson, who plays five of its next six games on the road. First up is No. 22 Pittsburgh, then North Carolina, where the Tigers have never beaten the Tar Heels in 56 games at Chapel Hill.

“We’ve got a lot of rough games,” Brownell said.

Coron Williams led the Demon Deacons with 13 points, while Tyler Cavanaugh scored 12 points and Arnaud-William Adala Moto added 10. Wake Forest is now 1-27 on the road in the ACC under fourth-year coach Jeff Bzdelik.

Wake Forest hung around for most of the game. Clemson never got its lead into double-digits, but also never trailed in the final 17 minutes. The Tigers shot 14 of 23 in the second half and 20 of 43 (46.5 percent) for the game.

“For three-quarters of the game, we defended pretty good too,” Bzdelik said.

But the stretch where Wake Forest’s defense failed came after a pair of free throws by Tyler Cavanaugh that put the Demon Deacons up 32-30 with 17:27 to go. McDaniels saved a rebound from going out of bounds and went back to Jaron Blossomgame for a layup. Wake Forest turned it over and Jordan Roper hit a 3-pointer. Clemson forced two misses on inside shots and McDaniels had a put back to give the Tigers a 37-32 lead with 16 minutes to go.

Clemson also made 18 of 21 free throws and blocked 10 shots.

“That’s what really makes their defense - their ability to protect the rim,” Bzdelik said.

Roper scored 11 points and Landry Nnoko added eight points for Clemson.

Like just about every team that has faced Clemson this year, the Deacons struggled to get any kind of shot. On one possession, Wake Forest got Clemson off balance with several quick passes and it looked like Codi Miller-McIntyre had an easy layup after getting two Tigers in the air with a shot fake. But Nnoko made it over to block the shot. The Demon Deacons scrambled to the loose ball and Miller-McIntyre looked open briefly for a 3, but Clemson flew over to rush the shot, which ended as an airball.

Clemson’s offense headed up the court with another boost from its suffocating defense.

“The defense starts the offense for us,” McDaniels said. “We gain energy from our defense.”

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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