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Tigers making big strides in Butler’s first year - UpstateToday.com
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Tigers making big strides in Butler’s first year

By Alex Maminakis

The Journal

CLEMSON — Danielle Edwards smiled from ear to ear Tuesday when the senior was asked if this season is the most fun she’s had as a member of the Clemson women’s basketball team.

Clemson’s Kobi Thornton goes up for a basket during the Tigers’ win over Georgia Tech on Jan. 17 in Clemson. (Courtesy of Clemson University)

“Yeah, it really is,” she said. “It’s a happy feeling that it is my senior year, but it’s also really sad because I’m having so much fun with this coaching staff, with this team.”

The Tigers have had quite a bit to smile about this season under first-year head coach Amanda Butler.

Clemson is 14-5 overall and 5-1 in ACC play, having won five straight conference games for the first time since 2000. As of Wednesday, the Tigers sat one game out of first place in the ACC standings behind teams ranked Nos. 1, 4 and 8 in the country.

By comparison, Clemson was 1-15 last year in ACC play, and going into this season, it was just 9-71 in conference games since 2013. The Tigers haven’t had a winning season since 2003-04, when they went 17-12.

The Tigers have also posted a better field-goal percentage than their opponents in seven straight games — the first time that has occurred since the 2002-03 season.

Butler has brought with her to Clemson a refreshed coaching mindset and a renewed energy that has translated to her players.

But within the Tigers’ dramatic improvements in her first season on the job, she points to Clemson doing the little things well — in practice and in games — and playing to its strengths that have led to a successful season thus far.

“We started out this year talking about the fact that we were team No. 44. We were the 44th team in the history of Clemson women’s basketball, and that stands alone,” Butler said. “There’s a lot of great stuff that has preceded team 44, and there’s a lot of things that maybe leadership would want to be different, but we’re team 44, and that’s all we’re trying to be.

“5-1, 14-5, whatever the numbers are, that’s great, but those don’t really capture who we are. Who we are is how we play, how we love each other, how we handle our business like women and just that desire to improve every single day.”

Nonetheless, the Tigers’ improvements are obvious.

After a 9-4 non-conference schedule that included wins over teams like Oklahoma, Illinois and Marshall, Clemson lost its conference opener to then-No. 14 Syracuse before rattling off five straight wins, including back-to-back road wins over ranked Miami and Florida State teams.

Junior Kobi Thornton leads the Tigers, scoring 16.1 points per game and grabbing 8.2 rebounds per contest, while graduate senior Simone Westbrook is scoring 14.8 per game and Edwards is averaging 13.8 points per contest.

“I think that our seniors are really hungry,” Butler said. “Not desperate, or ‘we’ll try anything,’ but really hungry to prove that they are who they are, and that’s really good Division I basketball players who chose to compete in the best conference in the country and try to make a difference at their university.”

It’s hard to imagine the veteran Tigers not being hungry for success after a rough span for the program, and they’ve bought into what Butler brought to the locker room.

“We were all just really eager to learn from her — to have a new coaching staff, to have a new style of play, to have new people as a part of our team to make us better,” Edwards said. “We were really excited about it, and it was just a matter of fact of us staying together through the whole process.”

That trust and that willingness to learn have led to success on the court for the Tigers. By no coincidence, Butler’s motto among the team is TLC, standing for trust, loyalty and commitment.

She’s been able to identify what her players’ strengths are and bring the best out of them, no matter if it’s not the flashiest brand of basketball there might be.

It seems to be working, after all.

“We’re just really happy that, as a goal of ‘let’s just get better every day,’ the byproduct has been winning,” Butler said. “So far, we’ve just been this little ragtag bunch of ugly ducklings that, we don’t shoot it that well, and you’re not really sure what you’re going to get night to night. It’s certainly not pretty, but it’s us, and we’re OK with that.”

The Tigers’ ACC schedule is about to get much tougher — arguably as tough as any team will face this season.

Tonight in Raleigh, N.C., Clemson will put its win streak on the line against the nation’s lone undefeated team in No. 8 N.C. State (18-0, 5-0 ACC) at 7 p.m. while searching for its first win over a top-10 opponent since 2000.

After that, Clemson will return home for a Jan. 31 date with No. 1 Notre Dame before hosting No. 4 Louisville two days later.

That stretch will undoubtedly be a tough test for the Tigers, but that’s also life in the ACC. Clemson, though, is focusing on improving each day, as it has all season, and playing its best basketball in each of those games and beyond, starting tonight with the Wolfpack.

“Having numbers next to their name doesn’t really affect me, and I hope it doesn’t affect the rest of our team either,” Edwards said on her opponents’ rankings. “But I can say that the way that we have played in the past five games has given us confidence, and we really understand, especially with my history with our past teams, that we can hang in this league — that we can play with the best of them.”

alex@upstatetoday.com | (864) 882-2386

Follow on Twitter @alexmaminakis