The Tar Heels (20-8, 10-5 ACC) had been outrebounded in three of their first four games with the four-guard starting lineup, while also allowing their opponents to shoot 46.5 percent, including a 41.9 percent effort from 3-point range.
It looked as though that latter trend would continue early at Littlejohn Coliseum as the Tigers converted seven of their first 13 field goals, including 3-of-5 from beyond the arc, to knot the score at 18 with 10:36 to play in the first half.
The Tar Heels clamped down defensively and closed the half on a 20-6 run as Clemson missed 13 of its final 16 shots (0-5 from 3).
And if that defensive effort wasn’t enough, UNC posted a 21-16 edge on the boards, led by Reggie Bullock (5) and P.J. Hairston (4). The Tar Heels held an 8-2 advantage in second-chance points through 20 minutes.
“I just definitely try to get to the boards because since we went small, Coach tells me every day I have to live on the boards,” Bullock said. “He tells our 2- and 3-man to get to the boards, so I just try to get there; easy buckets come to people that actually get to the boards.”
That initial growth, however, was met with apparent regression in the second half.
The fact that Clemson shot 48.1 percent (13-of-27) over the final 19:03 was a secondary concern for Roy Williams.
“They outrebounded us by 14 in the second half,” the 10th-year UNC head coach told reporters mere seconds into his postgame remarks. “… You can’t have that and be very good.”
The Tigers posted a 23-9 edge on the boards, including a 9-2 differential on the offensive glass. Clemson outrebounded UNC 39-30 overall.
When asked what changed, Williams replied: “They were going after the ball; we were acting like a bunch of pansies.”
Clemson post players Devin Booker (25 points, 11 rebounds) and Milton Jennings (12 points, 10 rebounds) combined for 16 rebounds after halftime.
“We just weren’t getting to the offensive boards,” James Michael McAdoo said. “Mostly the defensive boards, though, primarily was just Booker getting to the boards and having his way.”
After giving up just two second-chance points in the first half, UNC allowed 10 points off offensive rebounds over the final 20 minutes.
Williams promptly nixed the notion that losing the rebounding battle would be a necessary tradeoff with the positives the small lineup brings.
“No, I’m not going to accept it because tonight it was lack of effort,” Williams said. “If we try to box a guy out and they beat us to the ball, then I can accept it. But we were very, very inadequate on the backboards, to say the least.”
North Carolina could receive a reprieve of sorts on Sunday when Florida State -- the ACC’s worst rebounding team (minus-6.0 margin in league games) – comes to Chapel Hill.