North Carolina closed the first half on a 16-6 run for a 14 point halftime lead and withstood a late Clemson rally for a 68-59 victory Thursday night in front of 9778 fans at Littlejohn Coliseum. The win is the 20th of the season for the Tar Heels marking the 55th time in the program’s storied history of at least 20 wins.
The Tigers have lost three in a row and six of their last seven. It’s Clemson’s fifth straight loss and 15th in the last 16 games against UNC which now leads the all time series 127-20.
Clemson played the Tar Heels to a draw thru the first ten minutes but back to back threes by Leslie McDonald started the North Carolina run. James Michael McAdoo added seven points during the surge. Meantime, Clemson couldn’t make shots and went the final 4:14 of the half without scoring. North Carolina led 38-24 at the break.
The Tigers were kept at bay most of the second half as the lead grew to 16 points. They finally made a run in the final five minutes and cut the lead to seven 66-59 on a Devin Booker layup with 1:01 left. But those were the last points for the Tigers. UNC’s PJ Hairston finished up the scoring with a pair of free throws.
Clemson hurt itself repeatedly in the second half with turnovers. The Tigers only had three in the first half but turned it over 12 times in the second half. The Tar Heels scored 13 points off turnovers to Clemson’s two. UNC also had 13 fast break points while Clemson did not have a fast break basket.
“First off, North Carolina played very well tonight,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said. “I think they played about as well as anyone has played coming into our building, maybe Purdue played better. They got off to a great start. They shot the ball very well and played with a lot of confidence. They played at an extremely high level and we got beat by a better basketball team, clearly, tonight. I did not think our overall intensity was terrific in the first half. I thought it was average. We were not grinding defensively like we needed to. We were content with trading baskets. That is not the way we’re going to win games. The drought in the first half was crucial and that’s when North Carolina pulled away. I thought we played much harder in the second half. Devin (Booker) played extremely well. Milton (Jennings) also contributed, but our guard play was pretty poor. We had terrible turnovers that cost us. We had a couple chances to get the game in a winnable place, and our young guards did not play well.”
Booker, playing on his 22nd birthday, had 25 points and 11 rebounds, his fifth double-double in ACC play this season. Fellow senior Milton Jennings added 12 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists. They were the only Tigers in double figures. Clemson played without starting forward KJ McDaniels who suffered a sprained ankle earlier in the day during shoot-around. His was in a walking boot at the game and his status for Saturday’s game at Virginia Tech will be updated Friday.
Five Tar Heels scored in double figures led by Dexter Strickland with 16 points.
UNC is now 20-8 overall and 10-5 in the ACC. Clemson falls to 13-14 and 5-10 in league play.