The Tigers earned their third win over a ranked opponent this season with an exciting victory over the vaunted Tar Heels.
Clemson came out red hot, scoring their first 21-points via seven three pointers. They finished 15-30 from three. The 15 made three-pointers was a season-high. Gabe DeVoe brought his shooting touch home from Atlanta and knocked down five three-pointers after doing the same against Georgia Tech.
Their hot shooting was complimented by a superb defensive effort in the first half. The Tar Heels were held to a paltry 28 points. Eli Thomas played a big role in this as he avoided early foul trouble and played 29 minutes which allowed him to pick up six blocks!
At halftime, the Tigers held a firm 16-point lead. Clemson’s hot shooting wouldn’t last though, and the Tar Heels seized momentum coming out of the break with a quick 6-0 run aided by a four-point play from Kenny Williams.
For the second time this season, Cam Johnson had a big game against Clemson. Without Donte Grantham’s combination of length and athleticism to match his own, it was worse this time. After scoring 21 points with six three-pointers in the previous matchup with the Tigers, he scored a career-high 32 points with another six three-pointers this time. His big night kept the Heels in the game, but it was a late surge from Joel Berry that made things very scary in the closing minutes.
After 8 first half points, Joel Berry blew up for 19 points in the second half. With less than four minutes to play, Berry hit a three-pointer to slice the Tigers lead all the way down to two, 72-70. With 2:07 left to play, he’d knock down a jumper to tie the game at 74. The Tigers had blown their 16-point lead.
On the ensuing possession, the Tigers responded. The same player that chipped in the game-winning layup in Atlanta, Marcquise Reed, launched a crucial three-pointer.
Once again, the Tigers leading scorer came through, knocking it down to put the Tigers up three. They’d get a defensive stop on the next play and then ice the game with a couple of Shelton Mitchell free throws to earn their first win over the Heels in their last 11 tries, 82-78.
The game felt much like the one earlier this season in Chapel Hill, but with the roles reversed. The Heels scored 50 second half points, but a large first half lead and timely plays by the home team allowed the Tigers to hang on for win #18.
The Tigers moved the ball well, finishing with 17 assists to 10 turnovers while the Heels struggled to get out and defend the three.
Reed led the team in scoring with 20 points, rebounding with eight, and assists with five. Gabe DeVoe and Shelton Mitchell each had big games with 17 and 14 points, respectively.
Skara finally broke through with a big three-pointer while Clyde Trapp had two three point plays, one a traditional three and the other an and-1. Malik William contributed 11 quality minutes for the Tigers. Without Grantham or Mark Donnal (concussion), they were forced to go deeper into their bench and the Tiger bench responded.
What it means:
The importance of this win cannot be understated. At 7-3, the Tigers are now tied with Duke for third in the ACC. They trail 9-0 Virginia and 6-2 Louisville. Louisville still has two games remaining against Virginia and a head-to-head loss against Clemson. A top four finish provides a double-bye in the ACC tournament meaning only three wins are needed to capture the ACC tournament championship (bracket here).
From an NCAA tournament perspective, Clemson is all but a lock. A 3-6 finish would likely be enough for a bid. A stronger finish though, could yield an advantageous seed and set-up a Sweet 16 run. A #3 or #4 seed is not out of the question as the Tigers could enter Selection Sunday with about 23 wins including impressive wins over #17 Ohio State, #23 Florida, and now #19 North Carolina.
The win also shows that this team isn’t primed to shrink down the stretch without Donte Grantham. Emotionally, a loss - particularly after holding a big lead - would have been devastating. Instead, the players receive a confidence boost after responding to adversity. They now know they can beat the biggest brands in the sport even without two key seniors.
The student section was jam-packed, loud, and raucus. It played a role in what was just Clemson’s 17th ever home win against the Tar Heels. Hopefully it is one these students enjoy and remember for a long time, and well worth the hours of waiting in the cold for a ticket.
Upcoming, is a weekend road trip to Winston-Salem where the Tigers will be favored over the struggling Demon Deacons (8-13). Duke and Florida State (twice) are the only KenPom top 40 teams remaining on the Tigers schedule. We have a chance for a big finish. Don’t miss it.