The Clemson coach had just witnessed the No. 3-seeded Tigers fall 86-81 to North Carolina, the nation’s best team and the ACC Tournament’s top-seeded squad in a heartbreaking manner Sunday at Bobcats Arena.
It was a game Clemson (24-9) had a real legitimate shot to win.
“I’m very proud of the way our team played in this tournament,” he said. “I’m very disappointed that we didn’t get the job done.”
While Clemson made it to just their second-ever ACC Tournament Championship Game, the outcome wasn’t the real story. The much bigger picture and true storyline of the week was the rise of the Tigers and the proof that they are no longer the same Clemson team that existed when Purnell took over just five short years ago.
The Tigers made a loud statement that they are a very, very good basketball team and that they plan on being one for a long time to come.
“I’m pleased with the direction and growth of our program and I feel very optimistic about the future,” Purnell said. “We probably played well enough to win against most teams in the country, but we played a great one today and we needed to play great.”
The most important part of the season for the Tigers is about to start this week as they will make their first NCAA Tournament appearance in 10 years. What transpired this week in Charlotte is only a prelude to what Clemson could do over the next couple of weeks.
“Our confidence is high right now so it’s going to be hard to stop us,” said Clemson sophomore forward Trevor Booker.
Truth be told, in the locker room the players were just as focused on what is about to happen as they were with what had just transpired minutes earlier.
“The disappointment is probably going to live with us for a long time,” senior guard Cliff Hammonds said. “But we can’t focus on that. We can’t say the world has come to and end because it hasn’t. We’ve got more games coming.”
When discussing the loss, the players discussed how they felt like they let another game against the Tar Heels (32-2) get away from them. In the previous two overtime losses earlier this season, Clemson was in control the entire way.
They talked about not finishing in close to the basket, allowing too many offensive rebounds, missing free throws down the stretch and letting North Carolina have too many easy, fast break buckets.
Of course, the players are right. To allow all those negatives and still lose by only five speaks volumes about just how good this team is and can be.
“They just found our weak points today,” said freshman guard Terrence Oglesby, who finished with nine points. “They did a good job of pushing it and getting layups against our press.”
Booker, who finished had 12 points, six rebounds and six blocks, said the 19 offensive rebounds by the Tar Heels is what ultimately doomed the Tigers.
“To give a great team like that second chances, it’s definitely going to hurt you,” he said. “And it showed up in the end.”
One aspect that was pretty much out of their hands was the fatigue that set in midway through the second half. The Clemson players got sluggish and looked mentally and physically tired.
But that’s to be expected for a team that likes to press full court all game. Purnell later admitted that maybe he should have used more of his timeouts or use more substitutes to spell his guys.
That little spell allowed North Carolina to go on a 12-2 run and go from trailing 49-47 with 15:40 left to play, to leading 59-51 with 12:52 remaining.
The Tigers clawed back and eventually cut it to four points, but they just couldn’t get the big basket or rebound like they had a day earlier against Duke.
“It was definitely frustrating,” said junior Clemson forward K.C. Rivers, who led all scorers with 28 points. “We got it close and then all of a sudden they made another stretch run and we had to keep fighting hard at it on defense. We just couldn’t find that one that was going to make it click to get us going again.
“It’s something you can’t really help. Sometimes it goes your way and sometimes it doesn’t.”
Once again, the player that did the most damage to Clemson was the Tar Heels’ Wayne Ellington, who had a team-high 24 points on 10-of-13 shooting. Just for good measure, Tyler Hansbrough added 18 points and 11 rebounds.
Even with the pain of losing, the Tigers can make nearly everyone forget about this game’s outcome with a few wins in the NCAA Tournament, and Purnell fully expects that to happen.
“Our goal at the beginning of the year was to win the national championship,” he said. “We think we have an awfully good basketball team. I just hope our guys remember that. I think we can play with anybody in the country.”