North Carolina rallied from an 81-74 deficit with 2:37 remaining in regulation, scoring the final seven points to send the contest into overtime. And after freshman Demontez Stitt connected on two free throws to put the Tigers up 88-87 with 13.9 seconds left, the Tar Heels used a timeout to set up the final shot.
Ty Lawson (16 points, eight assists) penetrated the Tigers' 1-3-1 zone at the right of the key, and found Ellington open crosscourt behind the 3-point line. Clemson wing David Potter ran past the Philadelphia native in an effort to steal the pass, leaving Ellington a small window to get the shot up with the long-armed James Mays charging in his direction.
"It felt good leaving my hands, and [Mays] had a chance to get it, but it felt good and I knew if it got there, it was going to go in," Ellington said.
It went in, all right, preserving North Carolina's undefeated season (15-0) and No. 1 ranking. Ellington finished with a career-high 36 points, including 27 in the second half and in overtime. The sophomore connected on 11-of-19 shots (5-of-8 from long range) and hit all nine free throw attempts, including four in overtime.
On a night in which the Tigers harassed Tyler Hansbrough with a triumvirate of athletic post players, holding the All-American to 12 points and 14 rebounds, Ellington erased the memories of last season's failed game-winner against Georgetown in the Elite Eight.
"We didn't think he could go for 36," Clemson head coach Oliver Purnell said. "In fact, 33 would have been fine. He's a heck of a player. If you had told me we would do that type of job on Hansbrough, I'd take it. Ellington really hurt us in transition."
The sophomore guard put his teammates on his shoulders in the second half after the Tigers clamped down on Hansbrough and Deon Thompson (nine points, seven rebounds). Ellington made five baskets in the final 20 minutes after Clemson (12-2) had built a four-point lead or more, striving to keep the score tight until the closing minutes.
The effort paid off in glorious fashion as the Tar Heels did a better job in their half court offense spacing and fed Hansbrough the ball inside to even the score at 81-81 on the big man's free throw with 59.2 seconds left in regulation.
"When I recruited Wayne Ellington, I thought that this could perhaps be the best scorer that I've ever recruited," head coach Roy Williams said. "I am so confident in this young man and what he can do."
The Tigers set the defensive tone early, using a raucous crowd to score 15 points on nine forced turnovers in building a 41-38 halftime lead. Neither team shot particularly well in the opening 20 minutes – North Carolina shot 36.8 percent while Clemson finished with a slightly better 37.5 percent, but both squads shot 50 percent in the second half. The Tar Heels shot 41.7 percent (30-of-72) for the game, and the Tigers ended up at 43 percent on 34-of-79 shooting.
"We feel very fortunate to win, to say the least," Williams said. "It wasn't a pretty basketball game, but it was a game by two teams that really fought very hard… [Clemson] is by far the best team that we've played so far, and in my opinion, the best team since Oliver and I have been back in the league."
Wing K.C. Rivers led the Tigers with 24 points on 9-of-15 shooting, and center Trevor Booker contributed 14 points and 11 rebounds in the losing effort. Clemson's downfall came at the free throw line (14-of-27) and the 3-point line (6-of-24). Purnell's team had plenty of opportunities to defeat a top-ranked opponent for just the third time in the program's history, but Ellington's heroics ended those plans in the final seconds.
This was North Carolina's first overtime win since Bill Guthridge's final home game at the Smith Center on March 1, 2000. The Tar Heels had lost seven straight overtime games since that 74-72 victory over Georgia Tech.