CHAPEL HILL — After a cold shooting first half and missing its first try of the second, Clemson proceeded to make its next 15 field goal attempts against North Carolina on Tuesday. It was a dramatic reversal Tigers coach Brad Brownell chalked up simply to “the law of averages.”
That may have been the case for Clemson’s suddenly hot touch. But when it comes to winning a basketball game in Chapel Hill, the law of averages still has yet to catch up with Brownell and his snakebit team.
The 15th-ranked Tar Heels weathered the storm with some accurate shooting of their own, hitting 65 percent from the floor in the second half and nine of their last 10 from the line, to do what they always do when the Tigers come to town.
This time it was 87-79, making them a perfect 59 for 59 on their own home floor against Clemson and extending their NCAA record for longest home winning streak by a team against a single opponent.
“Like coach (Roy Williams) said in the locker room, why not hold it off for another year?” said senior point guard Joel Berry, one of five players to make a 3-pointer in the game and one of five to score in double figures. “I’m glad I can say that I didn’t end that streak while I was here. Hopefully we can keep it going.”
For awhile, it looked as though the Tar Heels (15-4, 4-2 ACC) would have little trouble dispatching their traditional foil yet again by running off 13 straight points to open an early double-digit lead. Despite leading scorers Berry and forward Luke Maye combining for just five points, UNC maintained the advantage through halftime by forcing as many turnovers (eight) as Clemson made baskets.
A Cameron Johnson 3-pointer less than a minute into the second half extended its lead to 18 at 41-25, prompting Brownell to call a quick timeout.
Whatever he said in the huddle, it clearly lit a spark under the 20th-ranked Tigers, who literally couldn’t miss for the next 10 minutes. With Marquise Reed doing most of the damage from afar and big man Elijah Thomas leading the way from close range, Clemson (15-3, 4-2) methodically chipped away at UNC lead.
“Once they saw a couple go in, their confidence just went up and they started to make more,” the Tar Heels’ Kenny Williams said. “That was on us. We could have done a lot better job on the defensive end. We had a lapse there in the second half where we let them get back in the game.”
Three times, the Tigers closed to within a single possession. Each time, though, UNC answered right back with a score of its own — on a 3-pointer by Berry, a tough hook shot in traffic by Maye and a trey by Johnson — to prevent Clemson from ever having a chance to either tie or take the lead.
“When we were scoring, everyone thinks its okay and then all of a sudden we turn it over three or four times and now it gets from 12, 13, 14 or whatever it was down to six,” Roy Williams said. “Then the intensity level of the game accelerated on both ends. I was proud of my guys for making some shots and especially going to the line and making free throws.”
As hot as Clemson was in the second half, the Tar Heels actually shot for a better percentage, converting on 13 of their 20 attempts over the final 20 minutes while the Tigers hit on 19 of 31.
After making those 15 straight, Clemson was just three for its last 12. UNC, meanwhile, never stopped hitting, especially from long range. Its 15 3-pointers, including six from Johnson, were its second most this season.
Johnson, the Pittsburgh transfer, led the way with 21 points. Berry made four from beyond the arc to finish with 17 points while Kenny Williams and Brandon Robinson finished with two each. Maye, who took five stitches to his nose after getting hit with an inadvertent elbow, added 11 points.
“If we were missing shots, they probably would have gone up on us,” Berry said. “It was a good thing we were hitting shots.
And not just from long range.
For all the long-range prowess both teams exhibited — Clemson made 11 3-pointers — the most decisive shots of the night came from a slightly shorter distance. While the Tigers went just 4 for 8 from the free-throw line in the first half to allow UNC to build its big lead, the Tar Heels were able to hold their opponent off down with a near perfect performance down the stretch.
“We have to play really well to beat a team like North Carolina at North Carolina,” Brownell said. “That’s just the way it is.”
That’s the way it’s always been since the teams first met in 1926.
Fifty-nine times the Tigers have come to Chapel Hill hoping to come away with a victory and all 59 times they’ve headed back home with the same disappointing fate.
Not that anyone is counting. Or so they say.
“Honestly, I didn’t think about it the whole game,” UNC guard Theo Pinson said before finally opening up and admitting the obvious — that as a senior who won’t have to play Clemson again in Chapel Hill, it was important that the law of averages didn’t catch up with the Tar Heels on his watch.
“It was definitely a relief,” he said.