CHARLESTON, S.C. — Elijah Thomas feels like he’s turning into the dominant player Clemson hoped for when he transferred from Texas A&M. He took another step in that direction at the Charleston Classic on Thursday.
Thomas had career highs with 17 points and 15 rebounds, and Clemson’s defense took control at the start of the second half of an 81-76 victory over Ohio on Thursday night.
Clemson coach Brad Brownell said he spoke often with Thomas throughout the offseason about how to impact the game in a positive way. Thomas, a 6-foot-9 forward, went to work making that vision a reality. He was nearly unstoppable down low against Ohio, making 6 of 10 shots with 11 defensive rebounds.
“This has given me a lot of confidence,” Thomas said. “We’ve prepared all summer for these type of games with rep after rep after rep.”
That work showed itself the most in the first 10 minutes of the second half when the Tigers (3-0), who led by four at halftime, opened up a 63-47 lead on the Bobcats (1-1) of the Mid-American Conference. They used the stifling defense that Clemson coach Brad Brownell has preached since coming to the Tigers eight seasons ago.
“Our defense during that time was certainly the difference in the game, I thought,” Brownell said.
The Tigers will face Hofstra on Friday for a berth in Sunday night’s tournament finals. Ohio will face the Flyers on Friday.
Donte Graham added 20 points on 6-of-9 shooting for the Tigers.
The Bobcats (1-1) hung tough with Clemson for a half until the bigger, stronger, quicker opponents from the Atlantic Coast Conference took over.
The Tigers used an 11-3 run to start the second half to open up a 53-41 lead. Their defense kicked in as Ohio struggled to get off shots for much of the second half.
Marcquise Reed’s 3-pointer put Clemson up 63-47 with eight minutes left. Ohio made a final surge, cutting the margin to 78-74 on Gavin Block’s driving layup with 15 seconds left. But Shelton Mitchell followed with two foul shots and the Bobcats fell to 14-32 against current ACC opponents.
Block led Ohio with a career-high 22 points including a career best six 3-pointers.
Thomas, a 6-foot-9 forward, surpassed his previous best of 15 points set last season against Duke. His 11 rebounds against Miami in 2016-17 was his old best on the boards. It was Thomas’ third career double-double and it helped Clemson continue its strong play in the tournament.
Ohio coach Saul Phillips said the Bobcats had not seen Clemson-type defensive pressure in a long time and adjusted as they had 11 turnovers in the opening half and none after that. “Litterally, you can see improvement during the game,” he said.
Ohio: The Bobcats sure can shoot. They hit 13 of 23 shots (56.5 percent) in the opening half. A drought in the second half — starting 6 of 16 — got them out of rhythm and they could not overcome Clemson’s big lead with a late charge.
Clemson: The Tigers will need Thomas to be as active underneath against all opponents, particularly in the ACC, as he was in playing Ohio. The former Texas A&M forward has the potential to be a force down low for the Tigers going forward.
CLEMSON IN CHARLESTON
The Tigers have played well in their three appearances in the Charleston Classic. They went 3-0 to win the title in 2008, then were runnerup five years later as they lost the title game to UMass. This makes them 6-1 in the eight-team format.
BLOCK IT OUT
Block, Ohio’s 6-foot-7 junior, surpassed his career bests in points and rebounds against Clemson. Block’s 22 points bettered his 19 against Norfolk State during his freshman year. His 10 rebounds against the Tigers surpassed his mark of nine that he set twice, the last time against Alabama A&M last week.
Ohio will play Dayton on Friday at the Charleston Classic.
Clemson will play Hofstra on Friday in the winner’s bracket.