The Tigers (17-6, 5-4 ACC) jumped out to a 15-point lead – their second-largest ever in Chapel Hill – with 8:55 remaining in regulation behind an attacking style of play on both ends of the court. Clemson forced seven of North Carolina’s 20 turnovers in the opening four minutes of the game en route to building a 45-34 halftime margin, handing UNC (22-2, 7-2 ACC) its largest halftime deficit since trailing Georgia Tech by 13 two seasons ago.
But the Tar Heels calmly and methodically went to work whittling down the deficit, connecting on 11 of their final 15 field goal attempts, while forcing five Clemson turnovers and holding the Tigers to just three field goals in the last 5:36 of regulation.
“I told our guys, if you just keep playing – we can’t do anything about the stuff that’s behind us, but we can do something about each and every possession doing exactly what [we’re] supposed to do,” head coach Roy Williams said. “I know it sounds plain and simple and corny, but that is exactly what I was telling them to do.”
Quentin Thomas (six points, nine assists) – subbing for the injured Ty Lawson for the third-straight outing – drove to the basket to knot the score at 82-82 in regulation to force the first overtime, and then the senior point guard drilled two free throws with 38 seconds left to send the game into the second overtime session.
“He stepped up big for us tonight, especially those two free throws,” Tyler Hansbrough said of Thomas. “[He was] just telling guys to step it up. We can’t be playing like this, especially in the first half, and I think he lifted us all.”
Hansbrough continued his steady march to National Player of the Year honors, posting yet another dynamic stat line – 39 points on 11-of-16 shooting (17-of-19 from the free throw line), 13 rebounds and three steals.
“Tyler’s an animal,” said sophomore guard Wayne Ellington, who added 28 points behind 5-of-9 shooting from 3-point territory. “He was everywhere. That’s why they call him ‘Psycho-T.’ He’s so aggressive and he’s after it all the time. He was huge tonight for us as well.”
North Carolina struggled for nearly 35 minutes in defending the Tigers, especially senior guard Cliff Hammonds, who scored 31 points on 13-of-23 field goals, including knocking down 5-of-8 attempts from behind the arc.
But the Tar Heels made crucial defensive stops at the end of regulation and the first overtime to keep their hopes alive. Clemson shot 44.9 percent (40-of-89) on the evening, but Oliver Purnell’s squad was held to 25 percent (4-of-16) in the two overtime periods. UNC shot 43.8 percent on 32-of-72 shooting.
Last Wednesday night against Duke, North Carolina trailed by 10 with 3:36 remaining before losing 89-78 as Hansbrough’s 28 points were not enough to overcome the Blue Devils’ defensive pressure all on his own.
But things were different on Sunday. While Hansbrough led the late rally against the Tigers, several other Tar Heels also put in clutch performances down the stretch – Thomas’ game-tying lay-up and free throws, Ellington’s offensive spark in the form of 12 points in the final 10 minutes of regulation and Danny Green’s two clutch 3-pointers in the closing minutes to keep his squad within reach.
"We started competing harder and you could just see it in guys' eyes - we just started wanting it more,” Ellington said.
But no play epitomized the North Carolina late game effort more than Hansbrough’s halfcourt defense of David Potter in the final minutes of the second overtime, which ended in a steal and an eventual trip to the charity stripe for the junior All-America.
Those free throws gave the Tar Heels a five-point lead – their largest lead of the night – and all but ended Clemson’s opportunity at ending the 0-for-52 streak in Chapel Hill. The 53 straight wins set an NCAA record for home wins against an opponent, breaking a tie with Princeton over Brown.
Oddly enough, those two free throws were also one more than the Tigers made all night. The Tar Heels knocked down 31-of-36 free throws on the night, while Clemson shot only 1-of-7 from the line.
“I don’t know how much longer I’m going to coach him, but I’d like to coach that big sucker about 13 more years…” Williams said of Hansbrough. “When he leaves, I am going to consider myself the luckiest guy in the world to have coached him.”
But there’s not much time to enjoy this remarkable come-from-behind victory – North Carolina will depart in less than 36 hours for another ACC clash against Virginia in Charlottesville. Williams said that he does not expect Lawson to play Tuesday, and with starting small forward Marcus Ginyard now hobbled by a right ankle sprain suffered in the first half against Clemson, Hansbrough will be relied on once again to carry his team into battle.
"I'm extremely tired right now, I can't lie,” Hansbrough said during postgame interviews. “I love to play basketball, but that was a lot and my body is pretty worn out. I've got a lot of bumps and aches, but I've got to be ready for Virginia coming up."