ATLANTA — ATLANTA -- Just six seconds remained, his roommate and best friend was shooting the game-clinching free throws at the other end of the court, and Sharone Wright stood alone near the Georgia Tech bench, his hands raised high in celebration.
He looked around and then flashed the first grin of a night soon to be full of smiles. All he could see were the backs of fans who had lined the aisles of the circular arena, most probably wishing they had left earlier to avoid the traffic.
This game wasn't for them anyway. The 83-80 victory over Georgia Tech on Thursday night was for the Clemson players only, the ones who had been suffering for so long on the cruel road of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Wright, of Macon, Ga., was instrumental in the milestone. The Yellow Jackets couldn't contain his 6-foot-10 body in the paint or harness his fierce determination: 18 points, eight rebounds and seven blocked shots.
But that determination hasn't always been able to overcome the adversity that has surrounded Clemson's basketball program this season. During the preseason, several players -- Wright among them -- were suspended for one game because of improper ticket distribution last season. The NCAA continues to threaten severe sanctions as a result of its ongoing investigation into the recruitment of Wayne Buckingham. South Carolina newspapers are already speculating that Coach Cliff Ellis is going to be replaced next season. The team lost six of its first seven conference games.
"I haven't told anyone around here this, but I came very close to calling it quits for basketball," Wright said. "I just had enough with everything. I was tired of all the hassles. There were times I just wanted to pack my bags and go back to Macon. But I decided to stick with it, and I'm glad I did."
Wright is satisfied, even though being a diamond in a pile of coal can be physically and mentally demanding. Wright called Thursday's victory "a confidence booster," because it came so close to his hometown, where his high school team rarely lost. He's needed such infusions in light of Clemson's season. In the team dressing room after the victory, a reporter brought up the inevitable topic.
"You guys haven't won a conference game on the road since . . ."
"Hey now, don't put that on me," Wright quickly interjected. "I wasn't a part of all that. That was Dale [Davis] and Elden [Campbell] and all them. I can only be blamed for last season."
Wright shouldn't be blamed for the Tigers' recent struggles, includ
ing a 20-game ACC road losing streak dating to an 89-75 victory at Wake Forest on Feb. 21, 1990. That season, Campbell and Davis helped Clemson claim the school's only ACC regular-season title.
Campbell (Los Angeles Lakers) and Davis (Indiana Pacers) were first-round draft choices, and Wright became the latest in a line of Clemson centers bound for greatness and equipped for glory.
The Basketball Times named Wright a freshman All-American last season after he averaged 12 points and 8.1 rebounds. He ranked 31st nationally with 2.3 blocked shots and was third in the balloting for ACC Rookie of the Year.
"He's got the rebounding presence of Dale Davis and the shooting skills of Elden Campbell," said Wake Forest Coach Dave Odom. "He's a tremendous prospect. He's fearless."
After the victory over Georgia Tech, Wright's averages of 9.0 points and 8.3 rebounds in conference games were lagging behind his overall averages of 13.5 points and 9.6 rebounds. While three of Clemson's five starters have lesser averages in league play, no drop-off has been more dramatic than Wright's.
Clemson jumped out to a 10-0 start in the non-conference part of its schedule, but Wright was rudely awakened by the reality of the ACC. He had seven points against N.C. State and Virginia, four points against Wake Forest and two points against North Carolina.
"Sharone hasn't stopped coming through for us, regardless of what the statistics tell you," Ellis said. "If you saw us play every night, you'd see how much defensive attention the other teams around the league have been giving him. He has to work harder than anyone inside."
Wright said: "I've been getting nothing but one double-team after another one. At least I know I still have the respect of the other teams in the league, because their defenses always pay attention to me. As soon as they see the ball coming in inside, the defenders all leave their men and come after me."
Still, he has managed to keep one important facet of his game at an optimum level. He has become the nation's most feared shot-blocker, leading all Division I schools with a 4.3-per-game average (73 in 17 games). No Clemson player has ever finished the season leading the NCAA in any statistical category.
On Dec. 12, in a 88-62 victory over North Carolina-Greensboro, Wright had 21 points, 15 rebounds and 10 blocked shots for the first triple-double in the ACC since the 1989-90 season (Georgia Tech's Kenny Anderson against Pittsburgh) and the first time at Clemson in 16 years. Tree Rollins has the two other triple-doubles in Tigers history.
On Jan. 26, Wright became only the second player in ACC history to post a triple-double against a conference opponent when he had 12 points, 14 rebounds and 10 blocks in an 82-72 victory over Maryland.
The only other ACC players to post two career triple-doubles are Rollins, Virginia's Ralph Sampson and Maryland's Derrick Lewis.
"I've seen him put a lot of determination into the game," said Clemson senior point guard Chris Whitney, Wright's roommate. "During the off-season, we went to the gym three days a week to work out. He's gotten a lot stronger. He's added bulk, and he's helped his stamina. When he was younger, I don't think he realized that he needed to be strong to run up and down the floor for 35 or 40 minutes."
Many former Tigers centers have preceded Wright to the NBA, from Rollins to Cleveland's Larry Nance to Chicago's Horace Grant to Campbell and Davis. All five of those former Clemson centers were on Opening Day NBA rosters, the most from any school except North Carolina.
"I think he's further along than the last couple of centers they have had at Clemson at his age," said North Carolina Coach Dean Smith.
Add to that recommendation Wright's growing sense of patience with the realization that, as a 6-foot-10 center loaded with talent on a team that doesn't have another player taller than 6-8, he's going to attract intense defensive pressure.
"Playing as well as he has, he's going to see pressure," Whitney said. "But he's managed to keep everything in focus. I remember told Sharone that the more he scores, the harder it's going to be for him to score."