In less than two minutes, the Tar Heels raced to a 10-0 lead and in no time, everything but the final score had pretty much been determined. That wound up being a 76-61 North Carolina victory Saturday at the Dean E. Smith Center.
“We came out a little sluggish and they played real well at the beginning and that hurt,” said Clemson senior guard and North Carolina native Shawan Robinson. “It was a 10-point barrier the whole game.”
The Tigers have lost three straight conference games and now are 14-8 overall and 3-6 in the ACC. North Carolina improves to 14-5 overall and 5-3 in the ACC.
“I thought our guys were energized and ready to go, but I thought North Carolina maybe even had more energy at the beginning of the game,” Clemson coach Oliver Purnell said. “Obviously the beginning of the game … was probably the tale of the tape.”
The Tigers now tie Brown for having the longest losing streak without a road win against one opponent. Brown lost 52 straight at Princeton, before winning in 2003. Clemson now has 52 consecutive losses at North Carolina.
At one point in the second half, much to the dismay of Tar Heels coach Roy Williams, the student section started chanting, “You can’t win here. You can’t win here.” It eventually came to an end when Williams motioned to the crowd to stop.
“I just don’t think you need to do that,” he said. “You don’t need to rub it in. The guy on the other bench is one of the classiest people in the business that I really enjoy. … I love our crowd, but I don’t like to put other people down.”
The chance for Clemson to break the record will have to wait a while as the two teams play only in Clemson next season, thus the possible record-setting game won’t be played until 2008.
“I’m not going to say that it’s so hard to win here,” said Tigers point guard Vernon Hamilton. “Carolina’s a team that you can’t allow them to jump on you like that and get up 10-0.”
In this case, the numbers do tell the story.
North Carolina shot 50 percent from the field, while the Tigers connected on just 39.7 percent, including a dreadful 4-of-18 from three-point range.
“We didn’t shoot that well from the outside tonight, which allowed them to put us in help positions (on defense) and allowed them to get transitions off a miss and they were able to run and go,” Hamilton said.
But struggling from the outside is nothing new for Clemson. In their last three games, the Tigers are 10-of-46 from beyond the arc (21.8 percent). Over their last five games, they are 20-of-88 from three-point range (22.7 percent).
Also, the Tar Heels were 23-of-29 from the free throw line, and Clemson was solid but took too few shots going 7-of-9 from the line.
To emphasize the point, North Carolina attempted more free throws (11) in the first half than the Tigers did for the entire game. Moreover, Clemson didn’t attempt a single free throw in the first half.
Then there were the turnovers, particularly in the first half, by Clemson’s low post players. Center Akin Akingbala had six turnovers. There were also uncontested shots from pointblank range that were missed by several players.
“We couldn’t control the ball,” Akingbala said. “We’re supposed to get possession of the ball before we can score. We kind of rushed because we knew pressure was coming, we knew the double-team was coming and we just rushed it.”
It was those turnovers and missed open shots that ultimately doomed the Tigers. They had clawed their way back from 46-29 deficit early in the second half to trail only 52-45 with 11:33 left to play.
“We didn’t cash in on some interior passing situations where we could have put pressure on them,” Purnell said. “I remember two where Sam Perry fumbled out of bounds. I remember two, maybe three, that Akin fumbled out of bounds. He had six turnovers and you have to make something happen with those. …
“I don’t know if we were a little bit tight, and certainly North Carolina’s defense and energy had something to do with it, but I thought we had a number of opportunities on the interior … where we could have put pressure on them.”
Akingbala ultimately led Clemson with 12 points and 10 rebounds, while Robinson and Hamilton each added 11. The Tar Heels were paced by Reyshwan Terry’s 19 points and 11 rebounds, as well Bobby Frasor’s 16 points, Tyler Hansbrough’s 14 points and David Noel’s 12 points.
“I feel very fortunate,” Williams said. “If I was on the road, I’d get out of town as fast as I could. I feel like I’ve stolen somebody’s candy.”
For now, the streak will linger over Clemson’s head for another two years, where there’s no doubt every player for each team will sometime think about it.
“A lot of guys were talking about the streak and we didn’t want to be the team to lose the streak,” Noel said. “At the same time, Coach Williams doesn’t think the streak is that important.”
For Clemson, it’s very, very important.
“I definitely think we’re capable of winning here,” Hamilton said. “I really thought that it was going to be tonight, but unfortunately it didn’t turn out that way.”