- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 12, 2005

Blue-collar basketball saved Big Blue.

North Carolina, the nation’s second-ranked team, escaped upset-minded Clemson 88-81 yesterday in the ACC tournament before 20,301 at MCI Center. A furious rally fueled by loose balls, steals and free throws gave North Carolina the lead in the final 79 seconds and allowed the Tar Heels to avoid becoming the first top seed to lose to a No.9 seed in the quarterfinals.

“When we were coming back, Coach [Roy Williams] said not to look at the score, [not to] look at the time, just make plays and get stops,” North Carolina center Sean May said. “There was a six-minute span where we didn’t even look at the score. The next thing you know, we’re up two.”

North Carolina (27-3) continues its bid for a No.1 seed in the NCAA tournament when it meets Georgia Tech (18-10) in today’s ACC tournament semifinals. Clemson (16-15) is expected to get an NIT invitation tomorrow.

North Carolina trailed 71-58 with 9:20 remaining before mounting its biggest comeback of the season. The Tar Heels didn’t hit a medium-range jumper the entire second half but used four 3-pointers and 11 free throws during their rally. Meanwhile, Clemson wilted under full-court pressure and scored only one basket in the final four minutes.

“We played well for 37 minutes against arguably the best team in the country,” Clemson coach Oliver Purnell said. “We just tightened up. We turned it over in the frontcourt; we turned it over in the backcourt. They turned the pressure up. We didn’t handle it well.”

In their regular-season finale, a 75-73 victory over Duke, the Tar Heels also had to rally. North Carolina overcame a nine-point deficit in the final three minutes to clinch the top seed in the tournament, so the Tar Heels weren’t too concerned when Clemson used a 15-7 run to lead 58-49 with 13:35 remaining. But when the deficit grew to 13 points, most of the fans not wearing Carolina blue began cheering for the underdog.

North Carolina quickly reversed the momentum. Forward Marvin Williams scored on a steal and a free throw and guard Rashad McCants, playing his first game after missing three weeks with an intestinal ailment, followed with two 3-pointers. North Carolina soon followed with five straight points to catch Clemson at 77-77 with 2:54 remaining.

The Tigers took their last lead at 79-77 on a fast break before the Tar Heels responded with seven straight points, six by guard Raymond Felton. Clemson’s upset bid was gone.

“There were times where they made a run and we fought back hard,” Clemson guard Cliff Hammonds said. “They went on a run at the end, and we just did not fight back hard enough. If we had fought back harder, we could have held them off.”

Said Clemson guard Shawan Robinson: “When we were up five, we were playing like we were just trying to hold the lead rather than just keep attacking. They took advantage of it.”

Felton led five North Carolina double-digit scorers with a career-high 29 points, including 11 free throws. However, it was hardly an impressive showing by the nation’s top-scoring team. The Tar Heels shot 38.9 percent, their worst since losing the season opener. A season-high 37 free throws in 47 attempts made the difference as the Tar Heels outscored Clemson by 17 points at the line.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide