Alex Hemenway gave the Tigers their first points of the game with a emphatic slam dunk to tie the score at 2-2 just 51 seconds into the game. A few minutes later, an Aamir Simms bucket put Clemson up, 4-2. They wouldn’t surrender the lead for the rest of the night.
From the start, the Tigers’ offense looked purposeful. Good ball movement and spacing gave the Tigers quality opportunities, and they cashed in with six first half three-pointers (6-15). They had 7 assists to just 2 turnovers in the half. Aamir Simms and Clyde Trapp each tallied 7 first half points while Nick Honor knocked down two three-pointers to add six points.
Meanwhile, the Tar Heels looked disjointed and out of sorts on offense. Silly turnovers - many of them unforced - and missed free throws put them in a hole. They finished the half with only 2 assists to 10 turnovers. At halftime, Clemson held a 12-point advantage, 33-21.
Clemson has struggled in the opening minutes of the second half several times this season and it happened again in this contest. The Heels found their offensive groove and immediately got to work chipping away at Clemson’s lead. North Carolina focused on getting the ball inside where Clemson was outmatched. The Heels’ 6’11” 265 lbs freshman, Day’Ron Sharpe, was the beneficiary. He found himself in the paint against much smaller Clemson defenders, often the 6’8” 215 lbs Hunter Tyson, and muscled his way to post points. After an easy lay-up off an inbound pass, the Heels slashed the lead to just 5 points, 38-33.
A bucket by Al-Amir Dawes pushed the lead back to seven, but a three-pointer from Kerwin Walton cut it down to 4 points. Coach Brownell used a timeout to stop the bleeding and the Tigers responded. Clyde Trapp pushed the Tigers lead back to 6 points at 42-36 on the next possession. Through 28 minutes, Clyde Trapp had 14 points, but wouldn’t score again. The Heel’s promptly trimmed the lead back to 4 points on a Garrison Brooks basket. The teams would then get stuck at 42-38 for 2 minutes and 33 seconds.
Hunter Tyson, who was scoreless to this point, suddenly went on a torrid hot streak that rebuilt Clemson’s lead. He scored 16 of Clemson’s 21 down in the final 9:21, single handedly outscoring the Tar Heels. He knocked down 2 three-pointers, 3 two-point field goals, and 4 free throws. Just as the night started with a slam dunk, Tyson ended it with two emphatic slams that locked up Clemson’s critical 13-point victory, 63-50!
Tyson led the Tigers with 16 points. Trapp scored 14 and added 9 rebounds while Simms added 10 points along with 6 assists. The big freshman Day’Ron Sharpe led the Tar Heels with 16 points and added 8 rebounds.
The win looks like a turning point for Clemson’s season. After an excellent 9-1 (3-1) start to the year, the Tigers had two games postponed. After the layoff they were rusty, which was to be expected, but they never shook off that rust. Instead they settled into sloppy play losing three in a row. The antidote seemed to be on the way with Boston College up next, but a COVID situation with the Eagles caused the ACC to adjust the schedules and send Louisville to Littlejohn Coliseum instead. The Tigers surprisingly beat Louisville, but then got absolutely blown out by Duke the following weekend. After losing four of five, this game held a lot of weight.
With this win, the Tigers bounced back from the ugly Duke loss. They’ve won two of their last three, with both being high-quality ACC wins (Louisville and UNC). Those quality wins give the Tigers six wins over KenPom top 50 teams (Purdue, Maryland, Alabama, and Florida State being the others). Pending potentially rescheduled contests, the Tigers only play one more team currently ranked in the top 50, Syracuse, who they get at home this coming Saturday. Georgia Tech (#57) and at Notre Dame (#63) come next and then the schedule really eases up with Pittsburgh (#85), Wake Forest (#118), Miami (#116), and Pittsburgh again to close out the schedule.
The Tigers are now 11-5 (5-5) and ranked 56th by KenPom. When they play well, they’ve proven to be much better than that ranking, but when they’re out of sorts, they can lose and lose badly. They appear primed for a big finish and an NCAA tournament bid, but they’ve been impossible to predict. They’re back in action on Saturday and they’ve given Tiger fans reason to tune in!