CHAPEL HILL — It’s a streak that defies explanation, so much so that players and coaches on both sides never seem to want to talk about it.
Except, that is, once the North Carolina basketball team beats Clemson in Chapel Hill to extend its dominance in the series yet again, allowing another group of seniors to leave without having it end on their watch.
“I’m glad I can say that I didn’t end that streak while I was here,” former Tar Heel Joel Berry said moments after a 2018 victory that extended his school’s record at home against the Tigers to 59-0. “Hopefully we can keep it going.”
The teams didn’t play in Chapel Hill last season, so the next opportunity to “keep it going” — or, in Clemson’s case, finally break through — will come Saturday when the Tigers make their biennial visit to the Smith Center.
Given the circumstances, coach Brad Brownell’s team may never have a better shot at breaking through and making history.
UNC is battered, bruised and reeling at 8-7 overall, coming off a 93-86 home loss Saturday to a Georgia Tech team that was picked to finish 12th in the ACC’s preseason poll and a 73-65 home loss Wednesday to Pitt.
The Tar Heels’ best player — and one of the nation’s best freshmen — Cole Anthony is still a few weeks away from returning from knee surgery. Another promising freshman guard, Anthony Harris, was just lost for the season with a knee injury of his own.
Freshman big man Armando Bacot has been up-and-down at best, graduate transfers Justin Pierce and Christian Keeling have been disappointments, and no one else on the roster seems capable of consistently making a perimeter jumper.
It’s a combination of woes that has coach Roy Williams — who is tied with Dean Smith on the all-time win list at 879 victories — at his wits’ end in search of an answer.
“It’s probably the least gifted team I have ever coached in the time that I’ve been back here,” Williams said on his radio show Monday night. “So if you’re going to be like that, you need to bring your ‘A’ game even though your ‘A’ game might not even be an ‘A’ game.
“For us to have a practice on Friday and we were flying around defensively. I told them, ‘It’s the best defensive practice we’ve had all year,’ and (then) a team shoots 59 percent on us 24 hours later. So we didn’t bring that on game day.”
While the Tar Heels are bordering on disarray, Clemson (7-7, 1-3 ACC) finally seems to be getting its act together after a choppy start and an injury epidemic of its own.
The Tigers took Miami to overtime on the road on New Year’s Eve before earning their first conference victory Saturday at home against NC State in by far their best performance of the season. They don’t play again until coming to Chapel Hill, giving them a full week to prepare for their attempt at keeping the streak from reaching 60.
But as history suggests, it would be unwise for them to take anything for granted when it comes to winning on the Tar Heels’ home floor.
“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.”
It’s also a documented fact that whether they want to publicly admit it or not, maintaining the unblemished record against Clemson is important to the Tar Heels. Nothing seems to bring out the best of them more than the sight of orange tiger paws in Chapel Hill.
That was never more evident than in 2002.
Even though Matt Doherty’s rag-tag team was well on its way to a disastrous 8-20 record that season, it still found a way to rise to the occasion, roll to a 96-78 victory and keep the streak alive behind a 28-point performance from Jason Capel.
The 59-0 mark, which includes 27 straight wins at Smith Center, represents the longest home winning streak to a single opponent in NCAA history. Making matters even worse for Clemson is the fact that Wofford — a mid-major located less than an hour away in the South Carolina upstate — has won each of the last two times it’s played UNC in Chapel Hill.
“I never talk about it because none of them have been involved,” Williams said of the streak in 2018. “Guys in my locker room may have won one or two of those. It’s going to end someday. My whole line has always been, I don’t want it to be during my lifetime.”