CHAPEL HILL — The streak, the one that saw North Carolina win all 59 of the basketball games it had ever played against Clemson in Chapel Hill, had survived just about everything imaginable over the years.
Even Matt Doherty.
So when the Tar Heels found themselves up by 10 with just under two minutes remaining Saturday, it appeared as though their unblemished home record against the Tigers would also withstand the rash of injuries that has decimated coach Roy Williams’ current team.
That is until UNC took a premature sigh of relief that the streak would live on for at least another two years while Clemson turned up the heat on its full-court pressure.
Or perhaps the law of averages finally got around to catching up with the longtime ACC rivals.
Regardless of the explanation, what happened next was just as stunning to the Tar Heels and a Smith Center crowd of 20,077. The Tigers came roaring from behind, tying the game on a dramatic last-second 3-pointer, before taking control in overtime for a history-making 79-76 victory.
It was a result that produced a scene normally reserved for tournament games in March rather than a regular season matchup early in the conference schedule — with Clemson coach Brad Brownell and his team celebrating in a joyous frenzy while players in Carolina blue littered the floor in dejected disbelief.
Under the circumstances, though, the tearful reactions from both teams were understandable.
“It’s just nice for former players and fans and everybody that we can put that to bed,” Brownell said of his school’s past futility in Chapel Hill.
At the other end of the emotional spectrum was freshman Armando Bacot, who summed up UNC’s postgame state of mind by saying, “Everybody was sad, really emotional, because we thought we played a good game. But we didn’t play good enough.”
It didn’t help the Tar Heels that in addition to being without star point guard Cole Anthony and key freshman Anthony Harris — both of whom are sidelined following knee surgeries — UNC got more bad news just before game time when it was learned that Anthony’s replacement, Jeremiah Francis, would also miss the game with an injury.
Despite the adversity, the Tar Heels were able to build a lead and hold onto it thanks to a career-high 27 points from senior Brandon Robinson.
But in the end, it was the lack of depth and a healthy point guard — not the pressure of extending the streak — that led to an epic collapse in which UNC committed three turnovers and allowed Clemson to make three 3-point baskets over the final 1:55 of regulation.
“I’ve never coached a team where I’ve started four different point guards during one season,” Williams said. “Believe it or not, we’ve worked on press offense more this year than any team I have ever coached, and we turned it over three times in a minute, 14 seconds. Those are related.
“When we had Ty Lawson, Raymond Felton, Marcus Paige, I’d say, ‘Just get the ball and bring it downcourt.’ This season, we’ve been hurt more by the press than all my 31 years put together, and I think the continuity at point guard is the issue there.”
Through all those years and beyond, those associated with the Tar Heels have always tried their best to downplay the significance of their dominance over the Tigers.
But it was evident from the comments of departing seniors after their final home game in the series that no one wanted to be a member of the team that finally saw the streak end on their watch.
As disappointed as the players were over Saturday’s loss, no one took it harder than Williams, a man who has never been shy about showing his emotions.
For better or for worse.
“That loss is my fault. No question, no doubt in my mind,” the Hall of Fame coach said afterward, specifically citing his decision not to foul Clemson’s Aamir Simms with a three-point lead before the 3-pointer that forced overtime with three seconds remaining.
‘I have had some great moments as a coach, and I would say that right now this is my lowest one because losing this game was my fault. I told them if I die tomorrow, 20 years from now this will be the biggest regret I have in 32 years as a coach, because these kids really need to win, and their coach let them down today.”