ATLANTA, GA - She may not have been playing on her home court, but Nikki Dixon reached a milestone in her Clemson career in front of a home crowd Thursday.
Then she sent them home with something else to celebrate.
Dixon became just the 23rd player in school history to reach the 1,000-point plateau in the Lady Tigers’ 80-79 overtime victory over Georgia Tech at McCamish Pavilion.
A native of nearby Alpharetta, Dixon achieved the milestone in front of more than 30 family and friends. More importantly, she capped the night with the game-winning basket on an end-to-end layup with 8 seconds left to give her team the win, its first in Atlanta since 2004.
“It meant a lot,” she said. “We work hard as a team here, and I know my role, I know my job, and tonight we just did it. I didn’t even care if it was my 1,000th point. I just wanted to win, and we pulled it out.”
Another local product, senior guard Chancie Dunn, scored 12 points and had seven assists. A native of Decatur, Ga., Dunn hit a free-throw line jumper with 3:28 left to tie the game and also had a layup in overtime that put Clemson on top for the first time in the extra period.
Quinyotta Pettaway and Kelly Gramlich also scored in double figures with 18 and 12 points, respectively.
The outcome marked a drastic reversal from a meeting between the two teams at Littlejohn Coliseum 22 days earlier, when Tech rolled past the Lady Tigers 89-68.
“I told the kids, ‘It’s about pride. They came into your house, and they just walked all over you. You’ve got to come back and return the favor,’” head coach Audra Smith said. “Just because someone beats you by 20 points and you’ve got to play them three weeks later, don’t say, ‘Oh, we don’t have a shot.’
“We don’t think like that. Tonight they put everything they had in them on that court and left it on the floor, and they walked off that court with a victory.”
Clemson (11-11, 3-5 ACC) fell behind early, but Dixon hit her milestone on a driving layup in traffic to pull the Lady Tigers within four, 28-24.
Tech led by as many as 11 in the first half, but the Lady Tigers closed the half on a 8-2 run to draw within five, 45-40, on a consecutive layups by Dixon, who finished the first half with nine points.
Clemson’s deficit was due in large part to its inability to stop the hot-shooting Tech team, which hit 58.6 percent of its shots (17-29) in the first half, including 7 of 10 attempts from three-point range.
“I told them, ‘Guys, just relax. Just compete, get defensive stops, rebound, and our offense will come. We’ve just got to keep it spread out and attack the basket, and we’ll be fine,’” Smith said. “And that’s what they did.”
The Lady Tigers continued their run after the half, extending it to a 14-4 run across the halftime interval since Tech took its largest lead of the game.
Dunn’s jumper from the foul line tied the game, 65-65, with 3:28 to go, and Clemson forced overtime.
Dixon made a pair of free throws to tie the score 73-73 in the extra period and give her 20 points for the game, and Chelsea Lindsay came up with a steal and fed Dunn for an easy bucket to put Clemson on top 75-73.
But the Jackets stayed close, and Kaela Davis put them back ahead with a jump shot with 14 seconds left.
Smith admitted she briefly considered calling a timeout to draw up a play.
“Then I thought, ‘Nope, let the players determine the game,’” Smith said. “I knew if I called a timeout and tried to set something up that would get them kind of jittery. They were in the flow and their adrenaline was flowing, and you’ve got to let the players play. You’ve got to let them determine the game.”
And Dixon did just that.
She took the inbounds pass and needed just six seconds to cover the length of the court for the game-winning layup.
“I don’t even know what happened,” Dixon said. “I knew that my team relied on me and I saw an opening to the basket. My post player stepped up and kind of blocked off the way for me, so I just immediately took it to the rim.”
Dixon finished the contest with a team-high 23 points, continuing her recent run of the finest scoring form of her career. The junior has scored 19 or more points in nine of her last 10 games and seven of the last eight in ACC play.
“Nikki is a really good kid, and she’s a really good basketball player,” Smith said. “I’ve said this a million times. When Nikki does the things that we ask her to do, she’s successful.”
And what the coaching staff asks her to do is take the ball to basket.
When Dixon struggled early in the season to find her rhythm in Smith’s system, the head coach had her video staff put together a highlight video of clips of her driving the ball to the rim.
“I told her, ‘This is where you’re successful. This is your bread and butter. No one’s been able to take this away from you yet,’” Smith said. “Georgia Tech tried to throw two (defenders) at her tonight, and they couldn’t do it.
“She took a couple jumpers early and we just sat her down. Nothing teaches a lesson better than that pine. So then she realized that she’s got to get to the basket. The rest of her shots from there on out were layups.”
And that included the most important shot of the game.