MEMPHIS, Tenn. — No. 6 seed Clemson withstood a late charge from No. 3 seed Baylor on Sunday, holding on for a 72-64 victory in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to reach the Sweet 16. The Bears nearly erased a 15-point deficit in the final seven minutes and had a chance to tie the game with under a minute to play.

However, freshman wing Ja'Kobe Walter missed two free throws with 36 seconds remaining that could have tied the game. From there, the Tigers drilled 6-of-6 free-throw attempts to ice the game.

With Clemson's win, four of the five ACC teams that reached the NCAA Tournament have now reached the Sweet 16. It's the program's first Sweet 16 appearance since 2018 and just its second Sweet 16 since 1997. The Tigers hadn't won an NCAA Tournament game since their 2018 run until this weekend.

Chase Hunter led Clemson with 20 while Joe Girard added 13. The Tigers will play No. 2 seed Arizona in the Sweet 16 on Thursday in Los Angeles.

The loss ends Baylor's season in the second round for a third consecutive season following the Bears' national title in 2021. RayJ Dennis led Baylor with 27 points and was instrumental in sparking the Bears' comeback.

NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament - Second Round - Memphis
Baylor's Ja'Kobe Walter missed two crucial free throws vs. Clemson. Getty Images

Walter added 20 points and was inconsolable in the moments after the final horn sounded. The projected 2024 NBA Draft lottery pick finished 6 of 13 from the floor but was haunted by a 5-of-11 performance at the free-throw line as the Bears hit just 16 of 26 (61.5%) from the charity stripe as a team. They entered shooting 73.6% from the line on the season.  

"The irony is we spent more time shooting free throws with this group than any other group," Baylor coach Scott Drew said. "And we've really made a lot of strides and a lot of improvement, but today we got snake bit. And Ja'Kobe is one of our best free throw shooters, has been all year. If it was late in the game, we'd try to get him the ball."

Clemson's persistence pays off

As RJ Godfrey corralled a game-clinching rebound with under 10 seconds remaining and was wrapped up in a foul by a Baylor player, Clemson guard Joe Girard broke out into a joyful skip down the sideline, pumping his arms to solicit maximum noise from the Tigers' contingent of traveling fans. It was the moment when it became clear the Tigers had withstood Baylor's push for a legendary comeback.

Clemson was on the wrong end of a seemingly never-ending series of close losses this season, including one in this same building against Memphis on Dec. 16, when it lost 79-77. Dating back to that defeat, Clemson had lost five straight in games decided by three points or less. As Baylor rallied, it seemed another dreaded possession game could be coming.

This time, the Tigers held on. And all the tribulations which preceded the triumph made the moment even sweeter. After rising as high as No. 13 in the AP poll at one point and turning heads with a win at North Carolina on Feb. 6, Clemson came into the Big Dance struggling.

The Tigers had dropped three of four, with each defeat coming against a non-NCAA Tournament team. The vibes hit rock bottom in a 76-55 loss to Boston College in Clemson's ACC Tournament opener.

"At the beginning of the year, we knew we had a lot of talent, we knew we had a lot of potential and people still weren't necessarily believing in us," senior forward and leading scorer PJ Hall said. "So when we came out, we were like 'alright, forget all that. Let's get out there and show people.' Then we became the person with a target on our back and there were times we got a little complacent. Now we've gotten back in that seat where we're the hunter. I think that's really sharpened our competitive edge."

Baylor's season ends in agony

Baylor entered ranked No. 7 nationally in 3-point percentage at 39.4% following a 16 of 30 showing from beyond the arc in a 92-67 win over Colgate on Friday. Against Clemson, the Bears hit just 6 of 24 from 3-point range and only 3 of 15 in the second half.

"I think you have to credit their length," Drew said. "Defensively, they're very good. Brad does a great job. But their length, not many people have a 6-foot-10 three man and then a frontline that big. I don't know if that affected some of our shots, but I'd give them definitely credit for it."

The Bears gave themselves a shot with their furious. Ultimately, coming so close may have made the agonoy of defeat more painful.

"It's hard because when you coach 30-plus years, there's certain teams that are just more special than others because of the bond you have," Drew said. "They were all raised right. They were all such a fun-loving group, respected one another. It all starts with the upperclassmen leadership, which was phenomenal all year. But normally you have one or two guys that aren't energy-givers and they can be an energy-vampire. You might have a win but they didn't get their points and they're a little upset, and you feel that. This team, you just didn't. We didn't have any of that."