Tar Heels take out Tigers at Littlejohn Coliseum
The North Carolina coaching staff celebrated Dean Smith’s 82nd birthday Wednesday by eating red velvet cake and ice cream with Smith in his office.
Thursday at Clemson, on Smith’s actual birthday, the Tar Heels made sure to continue his winning tradition.
UNC never trailed and led by double-digits for all but one minute in the second half, beating the Tigers 68-59 and recording 20 wins for the 40th time in 43 seasons. That streak started with Smith’s 1970-71 NIT championship team.
This season’s Tar Heels (20-8, 10-5 ACC) looked to be headed for another NIT appearance after losing their first two conference games, but they are now in third place in the ACC with three games remaining.
“My team has bounced back when everybody was abandoning ship early,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “We got tired of hearing NIT and all that kind of junk. We just tried to play every single day and they’ve really done a pretty doggone nice job.”
All five starters scored in double figures for the Tar Heels, led by senior guard Dexter Strickland, who matched a season high with 16 points.
Strickland made 7 of 9 field goals, including three mid-range jumpers — a shot the senior has struggled with this season — as he more than doubled his scoring average (7.7).
“I was just being more aggressive on offense, having more confidence in my shot, knowing that I work on it all the time,” Strickland said. “Finally just stepping up and knocking it down.”
Strickland also had four assists to one turnover to improve on his league-leading assist/turnover ratio (3.1), while junior Reggie Bullock filled up the stat sheet with 12 points, nine rebounds, six assists, three steals and no turnovers as UNC beat Clemson (13-14, 5-10) for the 15th time in 16 games.
The Tar Heels used a similar formula in getting their fourth straight win. UNC’s smaller lineup was outrebounded 39-30, losing that battle for the fourth time in five games since wing player P.J. Hairston replaced center Desmond Hubert in the starting five.
But the Tar Heels once again used their speed to their advantage, getting a 13-0 edge in fast break points and a 13-2 edge in points off turnovers. UNC has a 90-40 advantage in points off turnovers since the lineup change.
The Tar Heels have also stopped turning the ball over during their winning streak — with nine turnovers against Clemson, despite an occasional press by the Tigers, UNC has committed just 35 turnovers in its last four games.
Despite its poor record, Clemson was 4-3 at home in the ACC, with its last two losses coming by a combined three points to Miami and N.C. State. Williams said he remembered games in the past when the crowd noise made it impossible to communicate with his players on the court. But UNC took the fans out of it in the first half, breaking open a tie game with a 20-6 run that put the Tar Heels up by 14 at halftime.
Sophomore James Michael McAdoo said he expected more noise in his first trip to Littlejohn.
“I wasn’t really impressed, honestly,” McAdoo said. “It was one of the weaker arenas, no disrespect to them. The crowd was in it in the beginning, but it was a good thing we were able to take them out of the game early.”
UNC kept its double-digit lead for almost the entire second half, but missed 6 of its last 8 free throws and allowed Clemson to score nine straight points to get within 66-59 with one minute left.
“That’s something we can’t do against better teams,” Strickland said. “We had our foot on their neck, we just have to keep it on their neck the whole second half.”
Reggie Bullock was fouled and made two free throws, and Clemson didn’t score on its final three possessions.
“We’re happy to get an ACC win on the road, no doubt about that,” Williams said. “But boy we finished the game about as ugly as we can finish it.”
NOTES — Clemson forward K.J. McDaniel, the team’s second-leading scorer and third-leading rebounder, sprained his ankle in the afternoon shoot-around and didn’t play. … UNC center Joel James (concussion) played two minutes in his first game since Feb. 9.
North Carolina 68, Clemson 59
Percentages: FG .473, FT .533. 3-Point Goals: 8-22, .364 (Hairston 3-9, Paige 2-3, McDonald 2-7, Bullock 1-2, Strickland 0-1). Team Rebounds: 2. Blocked Shots: 3 (McAdoo 2, Strickland). Turnovers: 9 (McAdoo 3, Paige 2, James, Hubert, Strickland, Hairston). Steals: 7 (Bullock 3, Hairston 2, McAdoo, McDonald). Technical Fouls: None.
Percentages: FG .397, FT .818. 3-Point Goals: 4-17, .235 (Jennings 2-6, Roper 2-8, Filer 0-1, Booker 0-1, Harrison 0-1). Team Rebounds: 2. Blocked Shots: 0. Turnovers: 15 (Filer 5, Booker 4, Hall 3, Jennings 2, Roper). Steals: 6 (Jennings 2, Filer 2, Harrison, Hall). Technical Fouls: None.
A—9,778. Officials—Karl Hess, Les Jones, Ed Corbett.