When it comes to playing in Chapel Hill, Clemson is the college basketball version of Sisyphus.
He’s the tragic Greek mythological figure condemned by the gods to spend eternity pushing a giant boulder up a mountain. Every time he gets the rock close to the top, it rolls back down, forcing him to start all over again.
It’s happened to the Tigers 58 times in a row now.
Tuesday night, coach Brad Brownell and his team will try to end their endless string of futility and beat the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill for the first time ever. Their 0-58 all-time record on UNC’s home floor — which includes an 0-27 mark at the Smith Center — is the longest road losing streak to a single opponent in NCAA history.
But with Clemson ranked 20th at 15-2 and the Tar Heels having already lost once to a team from the South Carolina upstate this season, the Tigers figure to have a legitimate shot at finally getting that proverbial boulder over the top of the (Chapel) hill.
Then again, this isn’t the first time circumstances have allowed them to get their hopes up.
Here a few examples of Clemson’s previous best chances to forever put an end to a streak both sides insist they don’t talk ever think or talk about, only to come away with an all-too-familiar result:
■ 2002: Matt Doherty’s team was well on its way to a disastrous 8-20 finish when it met the Tigers on Senior Night. If ever there was a time Clemson was destined to win in Chapel Hill, this was it. And yet, as it always seems to do at home against the Tigers, even this rag-tag bunch of Tar Heels rose to the occasion, rolling to a 96-78 victory behind a 28-point performance from Jason Capel.
■ 2008: Of all the heartbreaks Clemson has suffered on UNC’s home floor, none hurt more than this memorable epic. The Tigers forced turnovers on the Tar Heels’ first five possessions and jumped out to an 8-0 start. Their dominance continued for most of the game and with just under three minutes remaining, a James Mays appeared to put an exclamation point on the Tigers’ long-awaited moment of glory with a dunk with just under three minutes remaining. But UNC wasn’t going to go down that quietly. It rallied back and with the help of a missed free throw by 80-percent shooter Demontez Stit, finished on a 14-3 run to tie the game. All-American Tyler Hansbrough then scored 13 of his 39 points in the first and second overtimes to prolong the Tigers’ misery — 103-93.
■ 2011: Clemson’s hopes were once again raised, with UNC was coming off a 20-point loss to a Georgia Tech team it had beaten by 15 only a few days earlier. This time the Tigers fell behind big early, only to mount a spirited comeback of their own. They tied the game on a Stit 3-pointer with 7½ minutes left. But like Sisyphus and his boulder, they weren’t able to manage that one final push to get to the other side of the hill. Harrison Barnes hit a 3-pointer to put UNC back ahead and Clemson failed to score over the final four minutes of a 75-65 defeat.
■ 2014: UNC once again seemed vulnerable after stumbling out of the gate by losing four of its first five ACC games and Clemson was riding after scoring an upset victory against Duke.
None of that mattered, though, as James Michael McAdoo scored 22 points to help the Tar Heels open up a 31-point lead midway through the second half on the way to an 80-61 rout.
■ 1997: The Tigers, coming off an upset of the Tar Heels at the previous season’s ACC tournament, were ranked No. 2 in the nation and were 16-1 when they came to Chapel Hill. Their coach Rick Barnes, a North Carolina native, was licking his chops over the prospect of finally getting the best of UNC at the building named after his personal foil, Dean Smith. But it wasn’t to be, yet again, as Vince Carter and Antawn Jamison led the 19th-ranked Tar Heels to a 61-48 win.
■ 1990: Clemson was on its way to the ACC regular season championship, but even with a formidable front line featuring future NBA stars Elden Campbell and Dale Davis, it still couldn’t overcome the Tar Heels, who rode the play of Rick Fox, King Rice and current UNC assistant coach Hubert Davis to a resounding 83-60 victory.
■ 1980: As is the case this year, both teams came into the game ranked, with Clemson at No. 12 and UNC at No. 13. The teams were as closely matched on the court as they were in the polls, but the order was reversed as the Tar Heels prevailed 73-70.
■ 1939: The streak started in 1926 with the first game ever between the schools, but it almost ended before it ever really got a chance to start in 1939 when Clemson fell a single point short, 24-23. It was one of just two one-point losses out of the 58, with the other coming in 1974. There have also been a pair of two-point heartbreakers in 1975 and 2003. By contrast, 50 of the 50 games have been decided by double digits.