BUIES CREEK, N.C. — They had come to see their team take another step toward a berth in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament — something that has only happened once before in school history, 27 years ago.
They had also come to see the magic show that is Chris Clemons, the 5-foot-9-inch guard who might finish his career as the second-leading scorer in NCAA Division I history.
But with just less than 15 minutes left in Thursday night’s Big South quarterfinal between Campbell and Hampton, the script had gone awry. Hampton, the No. 8 seed, had a 53-47 lead on the top-seeded Camels and the near-sellout crowd inside Gore Arena was restless, nervous and starting to get upset.
This is both the beauty and, at times, the burden of sports: There is no script.
At that point, Clemons decided enough was enough.
Sensing the NCAA dream starting to slip away, Clemons adjusted. Down six, with all eyes in the sparkling 3,095-seat arena on him, he caught the ball on the right wing and exploded to the basket. He went past Hampton’s excellent guard, Jermaine Marrow, saw help coming in the form of 6-6 Ben Stanley, twisted in midair, spun the ball into the basket and hit the floor hard as Stanley fouled him.
He bounced up, like an NFL running back who had just brushed off a hit — at a rock-solid 180 pounds, Clemons looks like he could be a fullback — and calmly swished the free throw.
The game was far from over — Campbell didn’t take the lead for good until Clemons hit a jumper to make it 68-67 with 6:10 left — but the sight of him barreling to the basket seemed to change its pulse. He finished the 86-77 victory with 34 points, only slightly above his national-best average of 30.1.
He also moved into fourth place on the Division I career scoring list. On Friday, in the tournament semifinals against Gardner-Webb, he scored 23 points to increase his total to 3,193, 24 short of Lionel Simmons of La Salle for third and 56 short of Freeman Williams of Portland State for second. Only LSU legend Pete Maravich, with 3,667, is out of reach.
The Camels (20-12) were upset by Gardner-Webb, 79-74, to end their NCAA hopes. But the season will go on: Because they won the Big South regular season title, they will receive the league’s automatic NIT bid.
“What makes him so hard to stop is he hits tough shots all the time,” Longwood Coach Griff Aldrich said. “First time we played them, first play of the game, Jaylon Wilson, my best defender, is draped all over him. He hits a three practically falling out of bounds. A minute later, there’s a whistle and he says to Jaylon, ‘So, is it going to be like this all night?’ Not cocky or anything, just, sort of, ‘Okay, let’s go.’ We clamped down on him big-time. Held him to 39.”
Said Clemons: “Funny thing about it is that Coach [Kevin McGeehan] told me when I visited here that this was what was going to happen. I mean, seriously, man, he told me I’d be the school’s all-time leading scorer and that we would be winners before I was done. It’s all come true.”
Clemons speaks so softly most of the time you have to lean close to him to hear what he’s saying. On the court, though, everything he does is loud. He has a 44-inch vertical leap and there are moments when he jumps or cuts so quickly going after a ball it appears that everyone else is in slow motion.
“He has such great feel for the game,” Presbyterian Coach Dustin Kerns had said earlier in the day. “There are moments when he just explodes on you, makes a play that leaves you shaking your head saying, ‘How did he do that?’ And he always seems to do it when his team needs him most.”
Clemons’s college career has been summed up by those five words: “How did he do that?’
In the final minute Thursday, with Campbell up 80-75, Marrow missed a three-pointer. As the ball bounded high off the rim, Clemons suddenly appeared, rising above everyone else to grab the ball with one hand. He took off down the court, put on a dribbling exhibition that would have made Curly Neal proud and was finally fouled with 10 seconds left.
“He’s not a good rebounder, he’s a great rebounder,” McGeehan said. “He’s 5-9, never gets posted up because he’s so strong and always finds the ball. He’s not just a scorer.”
Clemons is a classic example of the kid the big-time coaches overlooked because of his height. He grew up in Raleigh, dreaming of playing in the ACC — specifically for North Carolina. By the time he was a high school junior, he understood that wasn’t going to happen.
“You have dreams, then you reach a certain age and you get realistic,” he said. “I could see the ACC wasn’t recruiting me, so you move on. I just feel blessed that I got a Division I scholarship.”
Once McGeehan saw him play in a summer camp before his senior year, he was guaranteed at least one D-I offer. “Took me two minutes,” he said, laughing. “My assistant [Pete Thomas] had told me to take a look at him. I took one look at him and texted him and said, ‘This is the guy we have to get.’ ”
He has gotten better each year. As a sophomore, he struggled for a while from the free throw line, decided he was missing long and left and moved back about four inches and to the right corner of the foul line. He stayed there and has made 87.3 percent of his free throws this season.
He put his name into the NBA draft after both his sophomore and junior years and withdrew it because there was no guarantee he would be drafted.
“I came close last year,” he said, smiling. “I heard some encouraging things from teams, but I wasn’t sure and I knew this year could be a lot of fun. It’s been kind of a roller coaster, but it’s also been great.”
Clemons will graduate in the spring with a GPA of better than 3.0 and a degree in business administration. He plans, however, to get an advanced degree in basketball in the NBA.
“We’ll have to wait and see about that won’t we?” he said, his voice soft, but his smile making it clear he has complete confidence in his ability to play at the next level. “I think I’m still getting better and I hope someone will give me a chance up there the way Campbell did.
“I feel like their faith in me has paid off pretty well.”
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.