CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) — This time, Tanner Smith came through with the ball in his hands against Virginia Tech.
Smith, Clemson's senior forward, had awful memories of the last time these teams played and his baseline jumper fell off the rim in a 67-65 loss to the Hokies last month. Smith made sure he didn't squander another opportunity in what could be his final game at Littlejohn Coliseum.
"It was nice," Smith said.
It certainly was for Smith, who scored 14 points including the game-winning foul shots in the Tigers 58-56 victory over the Hokies on Thursday night.
Smith didn't expect his free throws with 2:45 left would be decisive — or the final points for either team in the defensive struggle. But when he clutched the loose ball after Virginia Tech's desperation tip in, Smith knew he and his teammates could celebrate their third straight win and their fifth victory in their last six games.
The Tigers (16-13, 8-7 Atlantic Coast Conference) now have plenty to play for — a potential fourth-seed spot and first-round bye in next week's ACC tournament — when they close the regular season at No. 22 Florida State.
"I think our team as improved a lot over the course of the year," Clemson coach Brad Brownell said. "These guys are much more confident."
Suddenly, nothing's totally out of the question, not even Clemson extending its streak to six straight NCAA tournaments. Although Brownell's not talking much about that to his guys.
That's a far cry from the start of the season when the Tigers lost home games to midmajors in Coastal Carolina and College of Charleston, and to struggling South Carolina.
"We're smart enough to know the way we were losing, I just had to make sure these guys understood that 'Hey, we're still pretty good,'" Brownell said.
The Tigers showed that against Virginia Tech (15-15, 4-11), which ran out to a 16-6 lead early and was up 36-33 in the second half. The Hokies wiped out all of Clemson's eight-point lead in the second half to tie it up 56-all on Robert Brown's foul shots with 2:55 left. Ten seconds later, Smith put the Tigers up for good and set up a frantic final few minutes.
The Hokies missed three shots down the stretch. Still, they had a chance to tie when Cadarian Raines went to the foul line with 2.2 seconds left. However, he missed his first try and then purposely missed as his teammates tried for a tip-in. It didn't work and Virginia Tech lost its third straight heartbreaker following a 6-159 defeat to rival Virginia and a 70-65 overtime loss at Duke.
"We got exactly what we wanted," Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg said of Raines shot at the end. "We just couldn't finish."
Jarrell Eddie led the Hokies with 15 points.
Smith added six rebounds and two steals. Devin Booker scored 11 points. Milton Jennings had six points and 12 rebounds. The Tigers finished 0-of-10 from three-point range, the first time they won an ACC game without a long-distance basket since beating Virginia 74-63 on Feb. 10, 1990.
Tech's top scorer coming in, Erick Green, had a poor shooting night, going 3 of 11 for 8 points, just a little more than half his average.
Clemson and Virginia Tech came in headed in opposite directions. The Tigers had won four of their last five and were looking to guarantee a .500 season in the ACC with its eighth league victory and stay in the hunt for the fourth and final bye at next week's conference tournament.
The Hokies, 4-11 since New Year's Day, were looking to bounce back from a couple of disappointing near misses, falling to rival Virginia 61-59 and, in overtime, at Duke 70-65.
None of it seemed to bother Virginia Tech much, which hit three 3-pointers and ran out to a 16-6 lead. The Hokies were still ahead 24-17 on Eddie's jumper with 10:05 remaining in the half when the team went ice cold over the next seven minutes. After hitting nine of their first 14 shots, the Hokies missed their next seven shots and committed three of their six turnovers in the period.
The result was a 12-2 Clemson run that put the Tigers out front. Jennings spun in a layup and was fouled with 6:10 to go in the half, converting the three-point play for Clemson's first lead, 25-24.
Freshman Devin Coleman sent the Tigers into the break out front, 33-31, on a driving jam with six seconds left.
Clemson honored its four seniors in Smith, Andre Young, Bryan Narcisse and Catalin Baciu. The Tigers late-season drive is likely too late to extend their streak of five straight NCAA tournament appearances. But Clemson could certainly hold an NIT home game at Littlejohn Coliseum if it continued winning.
It was an odd start to the game, too. Smith, Clemson's mild-manner forward, was called for a technical after what officials considered taunting following his breakaway jam. The foul brought a steady, loud string of boos and catcalls from the crowd that lasted several possessions.
Smith has been honored for his charitable works with "Tanner's Totes," an organization that provides gift bags to children and teenagers undergoing long-term hospital stays.
Virginia Tech's Green spent a few moments on the bench when he got clipped in the face by Young, swatting a ball. Green was off target the rest of the half, going 1 of 4 for 2 points.
Green heated up for a stretch with two 3-pointers in the second half that cut Clemson's lead from eight points to 51-50.
Follow Pete Iacobelli on Twitter @PeteIacobelli