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Dabo Swinney: Clemson closing in on elite

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Dabo Swinney: Clemson closing in on elite

CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) Clemson had a landmark season and Tigers coach Dabo Swinney feels his team has closed the gap on the game's elite programs - and that they could go even further next season.

The Tigers (11-2), ranked 11th in the final poll, finished with their most victories since going 12-0 and winning the national championship in 1981. Swinney said Friday his players took a giant step forward with their last-second, 25-24 win over LSU in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl on New Year's Eve.

Now that they have, Swinney believes Clemson ranks alongside the game's very best.

``It just does a lot for our football team knowing we don't take a back seat to anybody,'' the fifth-year coach said. ``We can play and compete with anybody in the country.''

That attitude already has expectations soaring around campus. Swinney laid the groundwork moments after Chandler Catanzaro's 37-yard field goal as time expired gave the Tigers their first bowl win in three years, demonstrating to a national audience that his has national title potential.

Swinney said he'll have just 10 seniors next fall, meaning the bulk of a program that's gone 21-6 the past two seasons will be coming into its prime.

``With that comes an expectation. With that comes a belief,'' Swinney said. ``They understand the commitment that it takes. Those are positive things. That's the kind of culture you want to have.

``They're not hoping to win, they expect to win.''

Not that it will come easy.

On Thursday, Clemson's record-setting receiver DeAndre Hopkins gave up his senior season for the NFL draft. Hopkins had a school-record 1,405 yards on 82 receptions including an Atlantic Coast Conference record 18 touchdown catches.

Swinney thought Hopkins, who received a second-round grade from NFL draft advisors, could've used another year in college to develop. Still, he said he supported Hopkins' choice to leave.

``I think it's going to be tough'' for Hopkins to crack the first round of April's draft, Swinney said.

Coming back are two pieces some might not have expected in offensive coordinator Chad Morris and junior quarterback Tajh Boyd. Morris was linked to several head coaching openings and was interviewed by Texas Tech before AD Kirby Hocutt selected Kliff Kingsbury. Morris, the highest paid assistant in the game at $1.3 million last season, said he was happy to return to the Tigers.

Boyd, the ACC's player of the year, has thrown for 7,724 yards and 69 touchdowns the past two years and was leaning toward turning pro after the LSU victory. However, Boyd said he wasn't ready to leave with Clemson on the verge of even bigger things.

``There are things for us to go out there and accomplish,'' Boyd said.

That began, Swinney said, with a team meeting on Thursday. The typically ecstatic Swinney told his players the book was closed on 2012 and its achievements as everyone prepared to buckle down for next year.

Swinney expects another high-flying offense despite the departure of Hopkins and senior tailback Andre Ellington, who posted his second 1,000-yard season this past fall.

Sammy Watkins, an All-American as a freshman in 2010, will lead the receiving corps with backups like Charone Peake and redshirted freshman Genome Hopper looking for more playing time.

Clemson's backfield will feature Rod McDowell and D.J. Howard, who combined for 588 yards and seven touchdowns in backup roles.

The biggest questions will again come on defense, which struggled much of the season before having its best game against LSU. The Tigers, under first-year coordinator Brent Venables, allowed more than 396 yards and 24 points a game this year, although they forced eight three-and-outs against LSU in the bowl victory.

Two of Clemson's three biggest games next season - an expected top 10 season-opening matchup against Georgia and defending ACC champ Florida State - come at home where the Tigers have lost just once in 14 games the past two seasons.

Swinney likes what he sees down the road, yet understands there are plenty of hurdles to leap long before anyone can think championship.

``The big thing is are they going to have the same type of leadership and accountability,'' he said. ``I know what the 2012 team did. It's well documented. But that's got nothing to do with this team.''

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5 must-see moments from Wizards' blowout loss to Hornets, including Bradley Beal's buzzer-beater

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5 must-see moments from Wizards' blowout loss to Hornets, including Bradley Beal's buzzer-beater

Here are the five best plays or moments from the Wizards' 122-105 loss to the Charlotte Hornets on Friday night...

1. This was a tough one for the Wizards. For the third time this season, they got beaten by the Hornets and for the second straight time it was in a blowout.

They still had their moments, though, including this alley-oop from Tomas Satoransky (11 points) to Markieff Morris (13 points, eight assists, six rebounds). It was the second alley-oop connection for those two in as many games:

PODCAST: WHAT THE SESSIONS SIGNING MEANS FOR SATORANSKY

2. This was a play that encapsulated the Wizards' night. Jodie Meeks drew a flagrant foul on Michael Carter-Williams, but took a hard shot to the head:

3. Kelly Oubre, Jr. had a solid game with 11 points, including this big dunk:

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4. Speaking of Oubre, he helped the Wizards close the first half with a late surge. The real highlight was Bradley Beal stealing the ball and hitting a corner three at the buzzer:

5. Beal ended up with 33 points, six assists and six rebounds. Here's an and-1 he got to go down in the second half:

All in all, it was an ugly performance for the Wizards. To cheer you up, we'll leave you with this young fan who had a great time at Capital One Arena despite the result:

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Wizards suffer lopsided loss against Hornets, who have had their number this season

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Wizards suffer lopsided loss against Hornets, who have had their number this season

The Washington Wizards lost to the Charlotte Hornets 122-105 on Friday night. Here's analysis of what went down...

Bad matchup: Despite their poor record, there is something about this Charlotte Hornets team that gives the Wizards trouble. The Wizards lost to the Hornets for the third time in three tries this season on Friday night and, aside from a push in the third quarter, were never really in it.

All in all, it was a dud of a game for the Wizards who were probably due for one. They had won three straight games and eight of 10 since John Wall got injured. They were also coming off a huge road win the night before in Cleveland, a game that started an hour later than usual.

It was a tough turnaround and the Wizards sure looked like it. It was evident in their defense and unforced errors. They did, however, have a decent shooting night. They shot 49.4 percent from the field 16-for-17 from the free throw line.

The Wizards' second unit didn't provide a lift outside of Kelly Oubre, Jr. (11 points). Mike Scott, one of their best bench options, was held scoreless.

PODCAST: WHAT THE SESSIONS SIGNING MEANS FOR SATORANSKY

Ugly first half: The Wizards only trailed by 12 points at halftime, but that score was skewed by a five-point push in the final seconds. The Hornets dominated for much of the first two quarters and did so by hitting threes and forcing turnovers. Those mistakes dug the Wizards a hole they never recovered from.

The Wizards had 10 turnovers in the first half, the same amount they had in their entire game the night before. Limiting mistakes was a big reason they beat the Cavaliers, yet the script was flipped by Charlotte.

The Hornets capitalized with 23 points off those 10 first-half turnovers. The Wizards had 14 giveaways for the games that led to 28 total points. 

Charlotte was 7-for-11 from three at one point in the first half and finished 17-for-39 (43.6%) for the game. That is very uncharacteristic for the Wizards, who entered the night second in the NBA in opponents three-point percentage.

Again, though, the first half ended well as Oubre and Bradley Beal gave the Wizards a jolt in the final seconds:

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Bad defense: The Wizards have played some great defense in recent weeks, but they just didn't have it on Friday night. Most surprising were the guys that hurt them most.

Dwight Howard was limited to 11 points and six rebounds and Kemba Walker didn't score his first points until the final minute of the first half. But others like Frank Kaminsky (23 points), Marvin Williams (15 points) and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (14 points) got pretty much anything they wanted.

For Walker, it was a tale of two halves. He was held in check by Tomas Satoransky in the first half, but broke out in the third quarter and finished with 24 points and seven rebounds. Maybe it was tired legs on the Wizards' part, but Walker just kept dribbling until he got space and once he did, he knocked down shots.

Much like Kyle Lowry did a few weeks ago, Walker made adjustments to find success against Satoransky. We haven't seen that happen much since Wall went out, but those two guys have given him some trouble. Both guys are considerably smaller than Satoransky and very quick. Maybe there's something to that.

Add it all up and this was one of the worst defensive games of the season for the Wizards. They allowed their most points in a game since Jan. 17 against, you guessed it, the Hornets. Only three times this year have they given up more than what they allowed on Friday.

No Sessions: The Wizards did not debut their newest player on Friday night, which was probably to be expected given Ramon Sessions has not had any practice time yet. That is part of why he didn't play, but it's also another indication that he is unlikely to play much with the Wizards. Sessions is on a 10-day contract and is not expected to supplant either Satoransky or Tim Frazier at point guard. Frazier would seem to be the guy in danger of losing minutes, but it was business as usual for him against the Hornets.

Up next: The Wizards are off Saturday before returning to action at home against the Philadelphia 76ers on Sunday night. Tipoff is at 8 p.m. on NBC Sports Washington.

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