The Clemson players even felt it. The Tar Heels were getting a lot of the loose balls and were being sent to the free throw line time after time.
“It seemed like they had momentum even though we were up,” said Tigers junior guard Shawan Robinson. “We were up and it seemed like they had the advantage.”
Robinson was right as No. 2 ranked North Carolina (27-3) outscored the Tigers 30-10 over the final 7:44 to eek out the 88-81 victory Friday in the second round of the ACC Tournament at the MCI Center.
In those final seven-plus minutes, the Tar Heels made 6-of-7 field goals, 14-of-17 free throws and committed just three turnovers. Meanwhile, Clemson (16-15) was just 3-of-10 from the field, 4-of-7 at the free throw line and turned it over seven times.
“We definitely tightened up,” Clemson coach Oliver Purnell said. “We turned it over in the backcourt, we turned it over in the frontcourt and we didn’t take very good shots. North Carolina had everything to do with that. They really turned up their pressure defense.”
Prior to that point, the Tigers, while not playing perfect, had taken advantage of ever opportunity presented to them.
Clemson had made 18 of their previous 33 shots from the field and had scored on 26 of its previous 34 possessions. The Tigers only scored on six of their last 20 possessions.
“If we would have played the last three minutes the way we played the rest of the game, the game is won,” Clemson senior forward Sharrod Ford said. “We just didn’t take care of the ball down the stretch and we left guys open, who hit some big shots. …
“We just got kind of timid. We just weren’t as aggressive as we were.”
Another factor that went against Clemson was the fact when it has the big lead, the Tar Heels kept stopping the clock by getting to the free throw line, which was the last thing the Tigers wanted as the underdog.
“Usually I’m not a big believer in things like that,” Clemson senior forward Olu Babalola said. “I mean, I know it’s a factor and you want to score with the clock running down. Today it just seemed like it was at nine minutes for 20 minutes. I kept on looking up, 9:31, 9:17. I was counting it, counting it, counting it.”
All told, the Tar Heels shot a season high 47 free throws and made a season high 37 of them. Clemson was 20-of-29 from the line.
The odd thing about that stat is that it was North Carolina who used a full-court press defense for nearly the entire game, while the Tigers rarely pressed and the Tar Heels still shot that many free throws.
“There’s no question that it makes it tough when the clock’s not running, that’s for sure,” Purnell said. “But I have no complaints about the officiating. I think if we make a few more free throws and take care of the basketball late, we’re singing a different tune.”
A reason Clemson was in position to pull off the upset was the stellar outside shooting of Robinson, who scored a team-high 17 points on 7-of-11 shooting, including 3-of-4 from 3-point range. However, three of his four misses came down the stretch.
Ford played well on both ends of the court as he scored 15 points and grabbed eight rebounds. He also held North Carolina forward Sean May in check as the star forward was just 3-of-10 from the field and had just six rebounds.
The guy that did the damage for the Tar Heels was point guard and Latta, S.C., native Raymond Felton, who scored a career-high 29 points by hitting 4-of-6 shots from beyond the arc and making 11-of-16 free throw attempts.
“Clemson’s been playing their best ball towards the end of the season, so my hat’s off to them,” Felton said. “They made us play a great game. We just decided at the end of the game that we were going to play harder and get that win.”