CLEMSON - They came hoping to see Clemson announce its presence as a bona fide, upper-echelon team in the ACC. They left with their pride - and collective backsides - stinging.
A sellout crowd announced at exactly 10,000 in Littlejohn Coliseum Wednesday night watched as the No. 4 North Carolina Tar Heels methodically put away No. 19 Clemson, 77-55. It was the Tigers' (3-2
Atlantic Coast Conference) second straight loss after opening the season 17-0.
It also served notice to the rest of the ACC that the Tar Heels' loss to Virginia Tech last weekend might well have been a fluke. Roy Williams' deep, superbly talented unit kept coming at Clemson in waves until, finally, what began as a predominantly orange evening was stamped decidedly light blue.
"We were beat pretty good tonight and we just have to remember that the ACC race is a marathon and not a spring, and to keep improving in practice and find something to build on," Clemson head coach Oliver Purnell said. "When you are playing the best there is and you are playing less than your best these kinds of losses can happen."
The evening was particularly frustrating from Clemson's offensive point of view. The Tigers shot just 33.8 percent (23-of-68) from the field, and again struggled mightily from the free throw line (5-of-19).
There were trips down the floor where Clemson struggled to even get off a clean shot, sometimes settling for off-balance, fall-away jumpers in or around the lane, or misfiring badly from behind the 3-point arc (4-of-19).
Meanwhile, the Tar Heels (16-2, 3-1) were answering with layups and dunks against Clemson's press. And when UNC was forced into a halfcourt offense, their impressive array of weapons were able to either get enough separation and elevation for a clean jumper, or they were getting clear dribble-penetration to the basket for either a layup or a kick-out pass for an open perimeter shot.
"Our layup shooting was poor tonight, so we need to get those back on track," said Purnell. "...UNC played well defensively and got us out of our comfort zone offensively. As a result we shot a poor percentage from the field, a poor percentage from the three, and a poor percentage from the free throw line.
"We got away from what we needed to do and started to go one on one a little bit, or one on three, and that didn't work for the team."
The game actually turned with just over five minutes remaining in the first half.
Clemson, trailing 28-22, got a steal and layup from Vernon Hamilton to pull within four. On UNC's ensuing possession, Trevor Booker blocked a shot by Tar Heel center Tyler Hansbrough and the Tigers grabbed the loose ball and headed the other way.
K.C. Rivers spotted up for an open 3-pointer which, had he made it, would have pulled the Tigers within a single point.
Instead Rivers missed the shot, UNC rebounded, and got a transition dunk from Brandan Wright. The slam started a 16-5 UNC run over a span of 4:31 which expanded the lead to 44-29. A Cliff Hammonds basket at the halftime buzzer sent Clemson to the locker room down by 13.
The Tigers got as close as 11 on the opening possession of the second half when Sam Perry made a steal and drove for a dunk. But North Carolina responded with a 10-2 run - sparked by two dunks and a layup from Wright - to push the margin to 54-35 with 17:26 to go.
The game was effectively over at that point. Clemson would get no closer than 16 the rest of the way.
"The ball wasn't going in the hole for Clemson, and that makes the opponent look good whoever they are," said UNC head coach Roy Williams. "It's been a tough three or four days since the loss on Saturday. The kids thought that I was half crazy the past couple of days. I told them they didn't want to see the other half."
Nine Tar Heels played at least 10 minutes Wednesday. Four of them, led by Wright's 17 points, scored in double figures. Hansbrough added 16, Wayne Ellington 11 and Danny Green 10.
James Mays and Cliff Hammonds topped Clemson with 15 points each, while Vernon Hamilotn scored 10.
Clemson is back in action at noon Saturday, hosting Boston College.