NSJ 2020 Play of the Year: Clemson’s Aamir Simms hits game-tying 3 in Chapel Hill

The Tigers ended 94 years of losing with their overtime win over Tar Heels

Aamir Simms ended Clemson’s misery in Chapel Hill, snapping the Tigers’ 94 years of losing on the road against the Tar Heels. (Photo courtesy of Clemson men’s basketball)

Tree Rollins never did it. Neither did Elden Campbell, Horace Grant, Dale Davis or Larry Nance.

All told, Clemson had made 59 trips to Chapel Hill over its history to play men’s basketball. Not once had the Tigers beaten the Tar Heels.

It began in 1926. At times, it seemed like it might never end. There were years when the Tigers were favored. There were close calls. But each time, UNC came out victorious and Clemson went home, frustrated and demoralized.

You could say it was like Charlie Brown trying to kick the football only Lucy pulled the ball away, leaving Charlie Brown flat on his back, a total of 59 times.

Fifty-nine times. The next longest current winless road streak in the ACC is Boston College at Duke — at 11 games. If they play every year with Duke winning, it will take until 2068 for that series to match Clemson’s streak of futility in Chapel Hill. The next longest in ACC history is Clemson at Duke — which went 29 games before the Tigers won.

Fifty-nine times. And, with 2:08 remaining in the Smith Center on Jan. 11, all indications were that the streak was going to be extended to 60. The Tar Heels, at a disappointing 8-7 on the year, 1-3 in the ACC, were up by 10 points.

Hunter Tyson hit a 3-pointer to cut the Carolina lead to seven. Then it was time for Aamir Simms to shine.

The junior had already tasted defeat in Chapel Hill.

“A lot of teams come in here,” he said. “Unfortunately, we failed to do so my freshman year when we thought we had a great chance.”

He was painfully aware of the streak.

“You definitely know,” he said. “People remind us all the time. … Coach (Brad Brownell) told us freshman year, ‘The pressure isn’t on us. The pressure is on the team that has the streak. They have to keep up with it.”

At preseason media day, Simms threw down the gauntlet.

“People were telling me during the summer that they hoped we broke the streak,” he said. “Hope never gets you anywhere. You just have to go out there and do it. I told my teammates we’re not the ones who have the streak. We’re the ones that just have to come in and play our game. They have to worry about that and stress.”

For the next two minutes of regulation, Simms made sure the Tar Heels felt that stress.

The junior scored a layup on a fast break, then hit a free throw. Simms knocked down a 3-pointer with 34 seconds left to cut the UNC lead to one.

UNC’s Brandon Robinson hit a pair of free throws with 12 seconds left, setting up the North State Journal’s Play of the Year for 2020.

While normally the year’s top play would be a moment of glory for a team from North Carolina, there’s no question that the significance of this year’s top play, while heartbreaking for the Tar Heels, far surpassed any high points for local teams this calendar year.

As the clock dropped below 5 seconds remaining, Simms set a pick, then backpedaled behind the 3-point line. Without ever really setting his feet, he took a pass from Clyde Trapp and launched over the outstretched hand of a leaping defender.

There was never any question. Simms stood, arm outstretched in the follow-through of his shot and watched the ball swish through the net. Tie score. A last-ditch UNC shot was off the mark, and the game went to overtime.

Clemson never trailed in the extra five minutes. The Tigers pulled out a 79-76 win in Chapel Hill, ending a streak of frustration almost as long as the program’s history. The final two points of the game, with 18 seconds left, were also scored by Simms, who finished with 20 points, eight rebounds, six assists, four blocks, three steals and big man on campus status for the remainder of his days.

The biggest number of the night wasn’t on Simms’ stat sheet, however. It was on the all-time ledger of Clemson in Chapel Hill, as the 0 in the win column was replaced by a one.

“It’s definitely good,” Simms said. “But that number still looks crazy.”