With Kendall Marshall making the first start of his career, North Carolina (13-5, 3-1) avoided an early deficit for the first time in three games, trading leads with Clemson (13-5, 2-2) through the first 10 minutes.
Reggie Bullock scored seven straight during an 11-0 run late in the half to give the Tar Heels an eight-point lead at the break. Bullock finished the half with 16 points, more than he’d scored in any full game coming into the night. And the 46 points scored by North Carolina in the half dwarfed their 28.7 first-half scoring average in the first three ACC games.
Clemson tied the game at 63 on a Demontez Stitt three-pointer with eight minutes left but North Carolina outscored the Tigers 12-2 from that point forawrd to keep its undefeated home winning mark against Clemson alive.
North Carolina shot 46 percent and had four scorers in double digits with Bullock finishing with a career-high 18 and John Henson adding 14 points, eight rebounds and five blocks.
After shooting 45 percent from the field in the first half, Clemson converted just 25 percent of its field goals in the second. The Tigers finished the game shooting 35 percent from the field and had three players -- Devin Booker, Andre Young and Demontez Stitt -- score 11 points.
Bringing The Intensity
In his post-game press conference Roy Williams used a lot of adjectives to describe what his team needed to change coming into Tuesday -- intensity, urgency, enthusiasm, emotion. Call it what you will, something had to give for the Heels -- and it came through their defense.
North Carolina played an inspired -- if not a little technically unsound -- 40 minutes of basketball against Clemson. The Tar Heels held Clemson to 35 percent shooting and just two points in the final eight minutes of the game. But, most importantly, they battled.
“I thought we were much more intense to say the least,” Williams said. “We didn’t get back and get picked up as clean as I would’ve liked but we had so much more emotion.”
North Carolina created easy offense for itself early by getting out in the passing lanes and causing turnovers. Carolina converted nine Clemson turnovers into 12 points in the first half.
“I really think our defensive intensity in the first half set the tone for the whole game,” Williams said.
While the Heels created turnovers on the perimeter they also gambled quite a bit in the process, leaving Clemson open looks but the Tigers couldn’t convert enough of them. Clemson’s three leading scorers coming into the night -- Demontez Stitt, Jerai Grant and Andre Young -- combined to make just 8-of-41 shots.
Grant, who had made 64 percent of his shots coming into Tuesday, struggled against Henson’s length and shot just 1-for-12.
“John is really long and it’s hard to simulate in practice how long John is,” Williams said.
North Carolina also edged Clemson in the rebounding battle, 43-41. With a distinct size advantage, a plus-two margin isn’t much but the Tigers challenged Carolina physically - the type of play the Tar Heels struggled with against Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech - and this time North Carolina responded.
“That’s why you’re working in the weight room with Jonas and working in the off-season, just being physical down there,” Henson said. “The ACC has some big boys and you have to know how to bang with them.”
Harrison Barnes (13 points, six rebounds) said Sunday’s loss was the first time he really understood the physicality of the ACC.
“That kind of prepared me for this game,” Barnes said. “It’s not a joke down there. You have to be serious and you have to go to the hole strong.”
Point of Contention
After a rough start to the ACC season offensively, Williams made a decision to change the lineup for the first time this season, inserting Kendall Marshall into the starting group in favor of Drew.
While Marshall’s stat line was modest -- five points, five assists and three turnovers -- the impact was apparent. Carolina had its highest point total and field goal percentage of the ACC season.
“It was needed and that’s what happened,” Henson said of the change. “Coach made a decision and I think it’s going to be better for both of them. Kendall made his mistakes and then he came out fired up. Both of them played real well tonight.”
Drew thrived in his reserve role, finishing with eight points and four steals. The junior point guard got in the passing lanes at the top of the key, creating turnovers and transition points for the Heels including the final basket of the game on a breakaway.
“I thought Larry was sensational,” Williams said. “Defensively he was by far the best player on the court for us. I thought Larry handled himself extremely well.”
With Leslie McDonald unavailable due to a lung ailment, Drew and Marshall even played together for stretches.
“It gives us another really good defender on the perimeter,” Williams said. “Stitt is really good. I think Demontez is one of the better guards in the league. He tried to drive Larry a couple times and Larry really did a nice job.”
Drew said he’s not had a problem staying positive despite his change in role but appeared drained by the flood of questions about it from reporters.
“I’m a hooper, man,” Drew said. “There’s gonna be ups. There’s gonna be downs. Nothing is going to be smooth the whole way. You’ve got to fight through adversity. Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
The Other Reserve
Marshall’s insertion into the starting line-up might have made the most news but Leslie McDonald’s absence might have had more to do with the outcome.
McDonald was slated to start until the training staff discovered a lung ailment that forced him to sit the game out. Bullock came off the bench to score a career-high 18 points -- 16 coming before halftime -- providing a consistent three-point threat, shooting 3-for-7 from behind the arch, and bringing energy on the glass with five rebounds.
“Leslie has been knocking down shots real well for the team. He’s the sharpshooter on the team right now. I haven’t been hitting,” Bullock said. “I just had to bring that tonight and bring what I could.”
Bullock also made an impact defensively, coming away with two steals which helped lead to his career night offensively.
"Coach basically said to get in the passing lanes," Bullock said. "I started my game off by getting into passing lanes, getting easy buckets and getting myself on a good pace and knocking down shots when my teammates found me. That was the key to the game to get me going."