BUIES CREEK — Hampton did everything it could to keep Campbell star Chris Clemons from getting his hands on the basketball during the quarterfinals of the Big South Conference tournament on Thursday.
The Pirates shadowed him, bumped him and even knocked him to the floor a few times as he moved without the ball trying to get open.
Somehow, though, the nation’s leading scorer still managed to put up 34 points to move into fourth place on the all-time Division I list. And he wasn’t the only one on his team to benefit from all the attention he was given.
Fellow senior Andrew Eudy contributed 21 points and 14 rebounds while sophomore Jordan Whitfield, starting only because teammate Ja’Cor Nelson was sidelined with a stomach bug, added 13 points and four assists, to help the top-seeded Camels to an 86-77 win at Gore Arena.
The victory moves Campbell one step closer to just the second NCAA tournament bid in school history. Coach Kevin McGeehan’s regular season conference champions will play either No. 4 Gardner-Webb in a semifinal matchup Saturday.
The Bulldogs were a 75-69 winner against High Point on Thursday. Second-seeded Radford and No. 6 Charleston Southern also advanced with quarterfinal wins.
“We’ve seen similar things before and they’re ready for stuff like that,” Clemons said of his teammates and the way they rose to the occasion against Hampton’s defensive strategy. “They’re well prepared and ready to step up at any time.”
Eudy made 8 of his 11 field goal attempts, including his only 3-point attempt. He was even more of a factor on the glass, where his tenacity helped the Camels to a 36-31 rebounding advantage. Five of those rebounds came on the offensive end, leading to all six of his team’s second chance points.
Whitfield, meanwhile, took advantage of the open driving lanes created by Hampton’s double- and triple-teams of Clemons while also making 2 of 3 from beyond the 3-point arc. His performance was all the more impressive considering that 24 hours earlier, he was suffering from the same physical malady that kept his roommate Nelson from playing Thursday.
Between them, Eudy and Whitfield scored all their team’s points during a key second half stretch in which the lead changed hands on seven consecutive possessions.
“There was a point there in the second half when we could have let the way the game was going affect us,” McGeehan said. “But our toughness and resilience really showed up.”
As significant as his teammates’ contributions were, it was Clemons — as he usually does — that put the Camels over the top when the Camels (20-11) needed him most.
The 5-foot-9 guard went 3 for 13 from 3-point range and missed his first five shots of the second half as frustration began to set in over Hampton’s physical play and a 14-4 run that helped the Pirates turn a six-point halftime deficit into a six-point lead with just under 15 minutes remaining.
But instead of continuing to fire up contested jumpers, Clemons decided to put the ball on the floor and attack the basket. It was a strategy that helped send him to the free throw line 15 times over the final 20 minutes.
“They were in foul trouble, so it was just being aggressive, trying to get to the hole and get some easy points,” said Clemons, who also had seven rebounds, two assists and a blocked shot while being hounded most of the night by Hampton’s Jermaine Marrow — among others. Marrow led the Pirates (15-16) with 22 points.
“That was the best route to go, especially when we were struggling from the field,” Clemons said. “Try to get some easy points.”
With his 34 points, Clemons now has 938 for the season, a new Big South record. His career total of 3,170 points passed Creighton’s Doug McDermott (3,150) and Mississippi Valley State’s Alphonso Ford (3,165) on the NCAA career scoring list. His next target is LaSalle’s Lionel Simmons with 3,217.
Clemons hit a pullup jumper in the lane to put Campbell ahead for good at 68-67. He and teammates Eudy and Isaac Chatman then combined to make 15 of 16 free throws over the final 5½ minutes — sandwiched around a Cory Gensler 3-pointer — to finally finish the Pirates off and in the words of McGeehan, earn another 40 minutes in the pursuit of another championship.
That’s as far ahead as the Camels are willing to look as they inch closer to the goal of every mid-major program in the country.
“Two years ago down at Winthrop we were in a similar situation,” Eudy said. “We made it to the championship (game) that year and the result end like we wanted it.
“It’s always a focus for us to (concentrate) on this one game, because we know we have to get through this one game to get to the final. It’s never really been about thinking ahead because teams are too good. You can’t overlook anyone.”