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Clemson’s Comeback Effort Falls Short in Chapel Hill, 79-87

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NCAA Basketball: Clemson at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The #20 Tigers headed to Chapel Hill for their third game in six days. Coming off a home win over Miami, the Tigers seemed poised to at least keep it competitive, but alas they looked flustered and fell behind quickly.

The Tar Heel defense was aggressive early on and the Tigers got rattled. They committed 7 turnover in the first 12 minutes. With the Heels getting hot from three, the Tigers quickly fell behind 5-18.

Just as all seemed lost, Gabe DeVoe single-handedly brought the Tigers back into the game. He scored 11 of the Tigers first 18 points including 8 straight Tiger points to cut the lead to single-digits, 18-27, with just under 9 minutes remaining in the first half.

The rest of the half provided opportunities for each team. In an odd twist, the refs dinged UNC for some very physical play under the basket - giving the Tigers calls they rarely enjoy on Tobacco road and putting them in the bonus early on. Unfortunately, they failed to take advantage. Most notable were two misses on the front-end of one-and-ones. Eli Thomas was 1-5 from the FT line and the Tigers were 4-10 in the first half. The Tigers looked nervous and tight. Free throws came with an extra dose of hesitation and heavy breaths.

In the closing minutes of the first half, Luke Maye took an elbow to the face from a teammate and left the game (he’d return in the second half and make several critical jumpers). With the Heels top scorer and rebounder out, UNC went on a run to end the half on a 6-0 run and entered the break with a 38-23 lead. It was the 55th time in 59 home games against the Tigers they held a lead against the Tigers.

Nothing changed in the first minute of the second half. An open three was missed by Shelton Mitchell and UNC would quickly follow with a made three to extend the lead to 18. Brownell quickly called a timeout. The game was all but over at this point, and frankly I was feeling discouraged about this team’s grit. What happened next was nearly the greatest comeback in Clemson basketball history.

The Tigers would go on an offensive barrage. Marcquise Reed, who had no field goals and just two points in the first half caught fire. He was knocking down threes in rhythm. He was knocking down mid-range jumpers and he was getting to the basket and finishing. He rapidly made the blowout a competitive contest. He’d finish with 21 points in the contest, 19 coming in the second half.

Just as Reed was running out of steam, Shelton Mitchell began making his presence known. It highlighted how different this team is when he plays a major role in the offense. After an 0-3 struggle in the first half, Mitchell went 6-7 in the second half with all 18 of his points in the latter half, despite some grimaces as his balky knee tried to slow him down.

Behind the valiant effort of these two the Tigers, Clemson made 15 consecutive field goals and sliced an 18-point lead in a loud and packed Dean Dome to just two. Every time the Tigers made a run, the Tar Heels offense would find an open three and invariably make the momentum halting bucket. Cam Johnson was the primary culprit this time. The 6’8” senior entered the game with just 9 three-pointers made on the season but was a blistering hot 6-9 in the game. It’s that kind of luck which has bludgeoned the Tigers in many of the 59 losses they’ve suffered in the Dean Dome.

It wasn’t luck that cost the Tigers in this one, nor was it lopsided referees favoring the home team. Grantham finished just 1-9. The Tigers missed 7 free throws and failed to come up with critical stops to extend their second half runs. The Tar Heels passing was superb. They finished the game with 23 assists compared to just 14 for the Tigers. They moved the ball and had the Tiger defense scrambling for much of the game. Their hot three-point shooting (15-31) was largely thanks to this. Here’s how that passing looked:

Over the final 19 minutes of the game, the Tigers outscored UNC by 9-points. By doing so, they turned the loss into just the 7th single-digit contest between the Tigers and Heels in the Dean Dome, falling 79-87. When a blowout loss seemed imminent, this team showed the grit of the NCAA tournament.

Up next is Notre Dame at home followed by Virginia on the road. This is often the time of year when things seem to go haywire. How the Tigers respond to this tough loss will likely determine their season. Be sure to check STS Wednesday afternoon for our quick reaction to the release of the ACC football schedule and later this week for our preview of the Notre Dame game.