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So happy together: Syracuse transfer Joseph Girard III helps lead Clemson to Sweet 16

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Joseph Girard III had one goal when he entered the transfer portal last year — find a team that would get him back to the Sweet 16.

Girard has accomplished that by helping to lead Clemson into the NCAA Tournament’s second weekend for the first time since 2018.

Now that Girard has gotten back to the Sweet 16 — which he did as a sophomore with Syracuse in 2021 — he is hoping it lasts longer than Thursday night, when No. 6 seed Clemson (23-11) faces second-seeded Arizona (27-8) in a West Regional semifinal.

“One of the things in the transfer portal that I was really looking forward to was finding a team that I could get back here because there is no feeling like playing in March. I’m so thankful to be back here, but hoping to make it even farther this time,” Girard said.

Girard entered the transfer portal last spring after Jim Boeheim retired at Syracuse along with a desire to expand his horizons beyond upstate New York, where he spent his entire life. Girard grew up in Glens Falls and was the leading scorer in New York public school history.

If it was Girard’s goal to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament, Clemson was considered an unorthodox choice. The Tigers had not made the field the past two seasons.

Girard was familiar with Clemson after four years of facing them in the Atlantic Coast Conference, but he also had a connection with associate head coach Billy Donlon, who was at Michigan when Donlon tried to recruit him in high school.

Donlon and Clemson head coach Brad Brownell visited Girard and pitched him on being part of a veteran team and joining a roster that already had great chemistry.

“That was something I wanted for my last year. I also knew how great of a team they had last year, and a lot of those guys were coming back,” Girard said. “I felt these guys gave me the best chance. They’ve been nothing short of the best teammates I’ve ever had.”

Girard is averaging 15.3 points per game, but has been particularly lethal from the perimeter and foul line.

The 6-foot-2 guard has 99 3-pointers with a 41.4% accuracy rate. He is four 3-pointers away from joining Duke’s JJ Redick and Virginia’s Curtis Staples as the only players in ACC history with at least 400 3-pointers.

Girard has been even better on free throws, making 109 of 114 this season. The 95.0% rate is tied for eighth-best in a single year in NCAA history. Girard had made an ACC record 67 straight foul shots, before missing one last Friday in the first round against New Mexico.

“I think his experience certainly helps, his poise, his swagger, the fact he’s been in all these moments. He’s been in every kind of situation you can be in as a player. He’s got that inner belief that you can’t coach,” Brownell said. “But then I also think we’ve done a good job as a staff and players of putting him in positions to be successful. He certainly has capitalized on that.”

According to Sportradar, Girard — who also has 2,173 points and 541 assists — is only the third Division I player since 2009 with at least 2,000 points, 375 3-pointers and 500 assists. The others were Detroit Mercy’s Antoine Davis (2018-23) and Iowa’s Jordan Bohannon (2016-22).

“Obviously there’s a lot of stuff that speaks to his game, with the shooting and play-making ability. It’s not going to work out if you’re not a good dude,” center PJ Hall said. “Coming on his visit the first time and staying here for a couple of days and just meshing with the guys right away. We all knew that he was perfect for our culture and our program. It’s been nothing short of that.”

If Girard is going to get Clemson to the Elite Eight for the first time since 1980, they are going to have to contain Arizona’s transition game. They will also have to defend Wildcats senior Caleb Love, who averaged 14 points against Clemson in three games when he was at North Carolina.

“When you let a great player get confidence early, it’s usually a struggle for us on the defense. We’re just going to have to be locked in early and make sure there’s nothing easy,” Girard said.

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AP March Madness bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-mens-bracket and coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness

By JOE REEDY
AP Sports Writer

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