Chapel Hill, NC- This matchup, despite what the ACC records might tell you, was no David versus Goliath situation. Clemson had three quad-one victories on the year (at Alabama, neutral vs TCU, at Pittsburgh) heading into this game against North Carolina. With North Carolina coming off its rivalry win over Duke and Clemson's one-point loss to Virginia, the momentum was in the Tar Heels' favor heading into Tuesday night.
The start of the game was not the start that North Carolina had hoped for. As the Tar Heels came out flat, Clemson started the game on a 15-2 run that included back-to-back PJ Hall three-pointers, forcing North Carolina head coach Hubert Davis to call a timeout to try to stop the run that had occurred. In the post-game press conference, Coach Davis spoke about his message to his players in that first timeout:
"Its not about X's and O's. There is nothing from a basketball standpoint that we can talk about until the energy, effort and enthusiasm rises and if that would rise, then things would change. Then we can start talking about basketball."
With RJ Davis struggling in the first half with 6 points (2-10 FG, 2-5 3PT), Armando Bacot stepped up for his team and provided enough offense to keep this game at a reasonable distance. He was getting good post position regardless of the defender Clemson had on him and he finished the first half with 14 points, 6 rebounds, and a perfect 6-6 from the free throw line. His efforts were enough to allow only a nine-point lead for Clemson at the half, despite leading by as much as sixteen (41-25).
As simple as it sounds, a key differentiator in the first half was that Clemson was on fire and North Carolina was ice cold. Clemson shot 48% from the field, 42% from three, and 83% from the free throw line. North Carolina shot 31% from the field, 26% from three, and 72% from the free throw line. It is a miracle that the lead was nine for Clemson at the break.
To start the second half, two things in particular went the Tar Heels' way to help them climb back into this game; playing an up-tempo style of play on offense and PJ Hall getting his third foul with 17:56 remaining in the game. When Hall went to the bench for a long period, North Carolina used that to gain their confidence back on offense and make a run. I asked Coach Davis what he saw from the Tiger's defense that gave his team confidence to make the run that got them back in the game in the second half:
"In the second half they shot 30 something percent. We were able to get out in transition. Its always better to be able to go up against a team, specifically Clemson, where its not a set defense. I thought we had success offensively but where it came from was our success to get stops in the second half as opposed to the first half."
When North Carolina got settled into the up-tempo offense I previously mentioned, Clemson's defense was prepared, and even after giving up their monstrous lead from the first half, their defense stepped up and made plays. I asked Clemson head coach Brad Brownell what impressed him from his team's defense to help keep the game under control in the second half:
" Well we mixed in some zone, I thought it helped us at times. Other times it wasn't as effective as we would have liked. I thought we competed. Our offense helped our defense... I thought we got tired at times."
The stretch that sent the home crowd into a flurry of emotions was when Harrison Ingram was injured with 8:55 remaining in the game and headed back to the locker room. He would not return until 4:35 and immediately brought the Smith Center to what felt like its loudest point of the night, with a three-pointer to tie the game at 70.
PJ Hall took a charge on Armando Bacot that gave Bacot his fourth foul, and would have given Hall his fourth if it had gone the other way. Clemson had four players with three fouls in the final four minutes of the game but was able to play smart and hold on for victory despite a last-ditch effort by North Carolina in the final minute. Clemson earns a quad-one victory that can fuel their efforts to make a run in the next month and a half worthy of earning a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
Were there concerns for North Carolina coming out of this home loss? Of course. Should this change how you feel about the Tar Heel's chances to be in Phoenix in April to play for a national championship? No.