Raymond Felton scored a career-high 29 points including a deep three-pointer with 1:21 left that gave UNC its first lead since late in the first half.
“We knew that we were down nine points with two minutes left against Duke and came back to win that game,” Felton said. “So we knew that no matter what we could still be in it.”
Also, Rashad McCants, who Roy Williams said had shot nothing but layups in his two practices since being cleared to play, came up big down the stretch as Carolina erased a 13-point deficit and escaped the ninth-seeded Tigers.
McCants finished with 13 points, hitting two big threes late in the game.
“I think we did a great job of keeping our poise,” said Jawad Williams, who added 13 points, including a steal that started the rally. “Guys like Raymond Felton and Rashad McCants stepped up big for us down the stretch and that really made the difference for us.”
With the win, the Tar Heels improved their record to 27-3 and will face Georgia Tech Saturday in the first semifinal game at 1:30 p.m. The Yellow Jackets broke open a close game and ran away from Virginia Tech with a 73-54 victory. UNC won its only meeting with then eighth-ranked Georgia Tech, 91-69, at the Smith Center on Jan. 12.
But Clemson (16-15), winners of three of its last four since losing its 51st consecutive game in Chapel Hill, was fighting for a NIT bid and maybe more. The Tigers nearly shocked top-seeded North Carolina on Friday at the MCI Center, but came up short when it counted most.
When Jackie Manuel was called for an intentional foul and his fourth total with 17:15 left to play, it was apparent UNC was in serious trouble and Roy Williams’ quest for his first ACC Tournament win as a head coach was not going to be a cake walk.
“I told the guys before the game that there wasn’t a single one of them that had ever won an ACC Tournament game,” Roy Williams said. “I told them that it should be extremely important to them.”
Certainly those Carolina fans that procured tickets were booked for at least a two-night hotel stay, but when Clemson led 58-49 at the 13:34 mark, many were facing the real possibility of premature travel back home.
And when a Sharrod Ford free throw gave the Tigers their biggest lead of 13 points at the 9:20 mark, the Tar Heels were gasping for breath in a game in which they had never looked comfortable.
Clemson was collapsing down on nearly every inside shooting attempt by the Tar Heels, whose outside shooting woes continued. Sean May, who roared out of the gate with 11 quick points, appeared to on his way to another double-double. But with Carolina struggling from the outside, May ran into double and triple teams, and finished with 13 points and six rebounds.
“I just wasn’t putting the ball in the hole,” May said. “It wasn’t anything I was doing different. It was a tough battle in there and I had a tough time finishing plays.”
UNC, which converted just one of 11 offerings from beyond the arc against Duke on Sunday, had made just five of 15 threes before Roy Williams was forced to call a timeout.
The suddenly, the flood waters receded and the lid was lifted off of the Carolina basket. Somewhere in the nation’s capitol there was surely a dove carrying an olive branch. From that point on, the Tar Heels, which had struggled to do anything right, now appeared incapable of doing wrong. They would make their final four attempts from three-point range and 10 of 12 free throws in the final three minutes to finalize the comeback.
And for the second straight game, Marvin Williams (10 points, six rebounds) clutch play was crucial, especially his perfect 8-for-8 mark at the free throw line.
Meanwhile, the Tigers, which shot 62 percent, forced 11 turnovers and held the NCAA’s top scoring team to 37 percent shooting in the first half; began to lose confidence.
“We definitely tightened up,” Clemson coach Oliver Purnell said. “We turned it over in the backcourt, we turned it over in the frontcourt and we didn’t take very good shots. North Carolina had everything to do with that. They really turned up their pressure defense. It all got started coming out of a timeout.”
In the first half, a healthy UNC fan contingent gave Melvin Scott a resounding cheer after he had just scored five straight points to put the Tar Heels up early, 17-10. That turned into a roaring ovation when his replacement was announced. With 14:11 to go in the first half, McCants walked on the court in uniform for the first time since missing four games with an intestinal disorder.
“[The hardest part] was watching things that I felt like I could be doing on the court like contributing and helping the team,” McCants said of his absence. “I think the team did a great job without me.”
But for most of the opening stanza and midway through the final period, Clemson enjoyed an effective balance on both ends of the floor. The Tigers pulled within one point at 31-30. But a three-pointer by Jawad Williams, and a pair of unanswered layups by McCants and Felton, had Purnell signaling for a timeout just one minute later.
However sparked by a pair of threes by Shawon Robinson, the Tigers closed out the half on a 13-2 run and went into the locker room up 43-40. Robinson had 15 points going into the locker room, while third team all-conference performer Sharrod Ford, who managed just one field goal and six points in Clemson’s opening round defeat of Maryland on Thursday, had eight points by the break.
UNC fans remembered Robinson from last year, when he nailed five of six threes en route to a 24 point outing and a Tigers win over the Tar Heels at Littlejohn Coliseum.
Despite trailing at the half for the third time in their last four games, the Tar Heels may have been fortunate to be down just three.