Not this time. Clemson’s once-annual, now-periodic visit to Chapel Hill to play basketball could not have been better timed. After the Georgia Tech debacle, Carolina needed something to focus attention, and the challenge of beating a good Clemson team certainly provided that. Equally important, the short turnaround meant the Heels had no choice but to put Atlanta in the rearview mirror right away.
Credit also the fans who understood both the historic nature of the occasion and more importantly, both what a crucial game this was for this Tar Heel team, and what a quality team Clemson is. The Smith Center was amped up at tip-off time, and it needed to be.
Adding to the buzz of-course was the long-awaited lineup change bringing Kendall Marshall into the starting role at point guard. This was not a move Roy Williams wanted to make until he was completely sure (there is surely no going back on it now), and perhaps until events made some kind of change a necessity. The slow starts in recent games and the dreadful conclusion in Atlanta created a mini-crisis situation, making it a perfect time to make the change. (Williams originally envisioned three changes, before revising the plan due to Leslie McDonald’s injury.)
The good news is that Marshall and the starters got Carolina off to a credible start, on the way to a 46-point first half. As Roy Williams put it, the “want-to” and “sense of urgency” so sorely lacking against Georgia Tech and much of the previous conference games were present from the start, leading to 12 points created off turnovers in the first half.
Also good news is that Larry Drew II, whose production-per-minute this year has dragged behind what he did as a sophomore in nearly every statistical category, responded positively with a stellar performance of his own (8 points, 4 steals), capped by a steal and layup in the final minute that served as the icing on the cake.
“I just want to win,” said Drew after the game. “As far as who goes out first, that’s coach’s decision, but I’m just as much a part of the team as anyone else. Whenever I’m in the game, I’ll try to give whatever I can give.” What he gave tonight was an important boost off the bench, on both ends of the court.
And perhaps even better news is that now that issue has seemingly been resolved, attention can focus on the other enduring issues facing this Carolina team, such as ballhandling outside the point guard position, outside shooting, foul shooting, and ability to cope with athletic guards and forwards.
What accounts for how Carolina could go from scoring 48 in the first half to just 15 in the first 15 minutes of the second half? Part of the answer of course is turnovers, although there were fewer unfathomable unforced turnovers tonight than in Atlanta. Nonetheless Carolina coughed the ball up at a disturbing rate in the second half, failing to handle the pressure Clemson applied.
But the other part of the answer is even simpler. In the first half, watching Reggie Bullock’s breakout performance, I found myself wondering what a 2010s version of a “Reggie” candy bar might look like and how soon they might be available in the Smith Center. (Chocolate, peanuts, and Carolina blue cream? The possibilities are endless.)
In the second half, Bullock had several great looks, but just couldn’t find the bottom of the net. Neither could anyone else for the outside, until Barnes drained a big 3 to make it 66-63, a crucial basket. (Say what you want about Barnes and his struggles this year, but he has certainly proven himself to be a game “fourth quarter” player.) No news flash necessary, but Carolina is just a much easier team to defend when the open looks from outside are not going down.
In short, one lineup change and relatively subtle adjustment in minutes doesn’t erase this team’s weaknesses and inconsistencies, nor should we expect it to. The encouraging thing however for the Tar Heels is that even though they struggled offensively in the second half, they did not wither defensively, holding Clemson to just 25 percent shooting in the second half and two points in the final eight minutes. Credit John Henson with shutting things down inside (and also an important late tap-in), and the perimeter defenders for making life difficult. Of course, the Tigers missed some makeable shots too, but that’s more likely to happen when they’ve had to work hard for their shots over the course of the game.
And so the most enduring streak in Carolina basketball goes on. Clemson has a good team, they played hard, they played to win, and it’s easy to imagine Brad Brownell becoming the coach to end the streak in the not too distant future. (When it does happen, I hope for Carolina’s sake it’s not a struggling team that gets beat but a really good, top 10 Tar Heel team that goes down.) But not tonight.
Carolina wanted and needed this one, not because 55 is an important number but because this team needed a bounce back win in the worst way. Losing two games in a row going into an off week would have led to a confidence crisis and a week of negative vibes about the team (plus the surely unpleasant burden of being “that team” that lost to Clemson at home).
Instead, Carolina registered a quality victory. With this win, Carolina is 30 percent of the way to a (minimal) goal of a double-digit win total in the ACC, and the confidence meter is back up. Just 48 hours after being unable to do anything right, a young team has gotten its groove back.
Thad has return to Inside Carolina in 2011 as a regular columnist. He is the author of "More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much To So Many" (now available to be read for free online here: More Than a Game: ONLINE). A Chapel Hill native, he operated the manual scoreboard formerly located at the end of the UNC bench between the 1982-83 and 1987-88 seasons in Carmichael and the Smith Center. Thad wrote regularly for Inside Carolina and UNCbasketball.com from 1995 to 2005. He's an assistant professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond.