By Justin Mathis
Chapel Hill, NC – There’s an old adage that most basketball coaches have used at one point or another when asked to describe the outcomes of a game: “It was a tale of two halves.”
That saying rung true on Tuesday night in a huge ACC showdown between Clemson and the defending national champion North Carolina. On the minds of the Clemson players, coaches, and fans alike was ending a winless streak that dates back to 1926.
A scorching start to the second half put the Tigers in prime position to notch their first win in Chapel Hill, but a few timely shots down the stretch helped the Tar Heels hold off a very gritty group of Tigers by a final tally of 87-79.
Clemson broke the seal with an Elijah Thomas layup just 25 seconds into the contest, but then North Carolina quickly took command as a Kenny Williams three pointer put the Tar Heels ahead 3-2. After Clemson pulled even at five, North Carolina went on a 13-0 run, which began at the 16:25 mark and spanned the next three minutes and 35 seconds, to build an 18-5 advantage.
“Give North Carolina a lot of credit,” Clemson head coach Brad Brownell said. “I thought they played well tonight. The way they shoot the ball now, it’s one of their better shooting teams and we were certainly worried about that. Cam Johnson, I think, has been a great addition. There’s a lot of guys to cover and because of that, it’s hard to cover them all. We just started the game very poorly with turnovers – some careless ones – and then couldn’t make free throws, couldn’t make a shot. I thought we were down and kind of pouted a little bit based on our poor offense and never really defended like a team that’s a good team. They just made us pay all night.”
Clemson trimmed the deficit down to single digits four times in the last 9:59 of the first half, but the Tar Heels continued the offensive assault, particularly from the arc, and took a 38-23 into the halftime break.
“In the first half, we came out kind of slow,” Clemson guard Shelton Mitchell stated. “But we fought back in the second half and made a run at it – that’s what matters. I think we all got caught up in the moment, really, especially with us, how we haven’t won here. I think some of us were trying too hard. We let our offense affect the way we played – guys were missing shots and other guys didn’t have a good start. We kind of got in a slump and dug ourselves a hole (that was) way too deep.”
In the second half, Clemson came out firing. After missing a jumper on their first possession, a layup from Thomas with 18:45 to go sparked a scorching stretch where the Tigers knocked down their next 15 shots in the second stanza. That 15-for-15 stretch, which ended 11 minutes and 43 seconds later, turned a 15 point deficit into a 66-62 contest.
“I’ve only coached almost 1,100 (games),” North Carolina head coach Roy Williams recalled. “(It’s) probably over 1,100 if you count JV games and everything, and I’ve never seen anything like that.”
Not long after that, the Tigers cut the deficit to 66-64 on a jumper from Mitchell with 6:17 left. The Tar Heels, however, received some key contributions down the stretch, which stabilized a lead that was in jeopardy.
Graduate Transfer Cameron Johnson and Luke Maye each drained a shot from the arc in two of the Tar Heels’ next three trips down the court, which allowed North Carolina to retake control at that juncture of the contest.
“We didn’t want (the ending of the streak) to happen tonight,” North Carolina guard Joel Berry II admitted. “It kind of pissed us off when we got back from our last road game (at Notre Dame) and Coach told us that Clemson had requested more tickets than ever. They thought that they were going to come in and beat us, so that kind of ticked off a little bit and that’s why we had so much energy tonight to come out and play a good game.”
Clemson hit 19 of their 31 field goals in the frame, a 61.3 percent clip, while North Carolina was 13 for 20 (65%). Both teams attempted 31 shots apiece from the arc, but the Tar Heels knocked down 15 to Clemson’s 11. Overall, Clemson made 27 of 56 attempts from the field (48.2%), while UNC was made 26 of their 51 tries (51%).
“That’s ACC basketball,” Williams remarked. “We shoot 65 percent in the second half, but turn it over 10 times. They made 15 of their first 16 shots or something outrageous like that… It was a weird game. I told the guys, I started the season at (age) 67 and I’m going to end the season at 97. I hope we’re not a finished product right now. We’ve got to get better every day and that’s what we’re trying to do in practice. Yes, I’m frustrated about a lot of things, but it’s a W.”
All five Tar Heel starters finished in double figures, led by Johnson with a game-high 21 points, 18 of which came from distance. Joel Berry II had 17 points, followed by Kenny Williams (15), Theo Pinson (12), and Luke Maye (11), who left the game late in the first half after an apparent collision with a teammate.
Clemson had four notch double digit point totals, led by Marcquise Reed with a game-high 21 points. Shelton Mitchell had 18 points, followed by Elijah Thomas with 16 and Gabe DeVoe with 11.
Clemson (15-3, 4-2 ACC) will have a couple of days off before taking on the Notre Dame Fighting Irish on Saturday, January 20th at 4 PM inside Littlejohn Coliseum.
North Carolina (15-4, 4-2 ACC) moves to 59-0 against the Tigers in Chapel Hill, with 28 of those victories occurring inside the Dean Smith Center. The Tar Heels will play host to Georgia Tech on Saturday at 2 PM.