North Carolina’s opening three possessions foretold the miserable events of the evening for the defending national champions, thanks to three turnovers to set the tone. Clemson (14-3, 2-1 ACC) connected on seven of its first nine field goal attempts, while UNC (12-5, 1-1 ACC) could only boast eight turnovers and eight field goal attempts at the 12:34 mark, trailing 27-10.
The Tigers’ early lead grew to 35-12 before taking a 50-32 margin into halftime. North Carolina managed to cut the lead to 68-57 with 6:04 to play in regulation, but the Heels would not get any closer.
UNC shot 44.3 percent (27-of-61) from the floor and won the rebounding battle, 38-30. Despite Clemson knocking down 57.6 percent (19-of-33) of its field goal attempts in the first half, the Tar Heels held the Tigers to 35.7 percent (10-of-28) after intermission. Clemson finished with a 47.5 percentage on 29-of-61 shooting.
Dexter Strickland led UNC with 17 points on 7-of-8 shooting, while three Tar Heels scored nine points (Larry Drew, Will Graves and Leslie McDonald). Trevor Booker guided the Tigers with 21 points and nine rebounds and Demontez Stitt added 20 points.
North Carolina’s previous largest defeat under Williams occurred in the Final Four loss to Kansas (84-66) on Apr. 5, 2008, while the previous largest defeat on the road took place against Southern Cal (74-59) on Dec. 21, 2005.
INSIDE THE GAME
A Dozen (or Two) Turnovers, Take II
An overlooked statistic heading into Wednesday’s contest was that North Carolina ranked dead last in the ACC in turnover margin with a minus-0.69 mark, coughing up 16.3 turnovers per game while creating 15.6. It didn’t help UNC’s prospects any that Clemson led the conference in forcing 18.9 turnovers per contest.
That margin will only widen once Clemson’s victory over the Heels is factored into the league statistical rankings. North Carolina tallied 26 turnovers against just 12 assists, while the Tigers broke even at 14-14.
“We thought we could turn them over because they’ve struggled with that,” Clemson head coach Oliver Purnell said. “Obviously, that’s what we do. That’s who we are. That’s Clemson basketball… It definitely paid dividends for us.”
Purnell’s final comment won the award for understatement of the evening as his club manufactured 33 points – more than North Carolina scored in either half – off turnovers.
UNC’s final numbers actually look dramatically better than the halftime box score, which showcased 15 turnovers against three assists. The starting backcourt of Larry Drew and Marcus Ginyard combined for 10 turnovers and two assists on the night.
“A lot of passes were just going through some guys’ hands,” Drew said. “There’s not much you can really do about that. Sometimes I think their pressure made us speed up and we just tried to force the issue a little too much. It worked out in their favor.”
The 26 turnovers rank as eighth-worst in school history, tying four other contests, including this season’s opener against Florida International. You have to go back to the ’87-88 season to find the last time North Carolina had two games of 26 turnovers or more in one season.
Moments following the 88-72 victory over FIU on Nov. 9, Ginyard responded to a question about the turnovers by saying, “That’s just another thing of getting these young guys into it and older guys getting used to playing with each other.”
When asked on Wednesday if that old problem was the lingering culprit, the fifth-year senior shook his head and said, “We’ve just got to take care of the ball.”
The Ed and Deon Vanishing Act
When fire and brimstone rains down from above, sometimes your only defense is to do what you do best. For North Carolina, that would have been to pound the ball inside to Deon Thompson and Ed Davis, time and time again.
But Clemson prevented that plan from ever materializing. The duo combined to miss all four field goal attempts in halfcourt sets during the opening 20 minutes of play. Thompson’s lone first-half basket occurred in transition at the 9:32 mark.
“You kind of keep them between the top of the key and the top of the key a lot,” Purnell said. “Their guards are trying to attack, because if you don’t make us pay when we press, then we’re going to tighten the screws even more. [The guards] did make us pay some, but that means your bigs aren’t involved.”
The second half wasn’t much better, despite the Tar Heels making a concerted effort to force the ball inside. For the game, Davis finished with four points on 2-of-11 shooting, while Thompson also posted four points on 2-of-4 shooting.
Purnell credited Davis Potter’s early efforts in defending the perimeter pass to the wing as disrupting UNC’s preference for entry passes from those areas.
“I don’t think we got the ball in the right position [most] of the time,” Thompson said. “I think I shot a shot that I’m used to shooting once, just catching the ball and doing what I like to do. The tempo of the game just sped us up and didn’t allow us to get the ball where we wanted to get it.”
The “R” Word
If there’s a shelf available in your home library, you may want to consider adding the newest edition of North Carolina’s tantalizing season-long series entitled “A Deluge of Runs.”
In their first hostile environment of the season, the Tar Heels could only watch as Syracuse opened the second half with a 25-3 run to blow open a tight contest at Madison Square Garden. Fifteen days later, Kentucky exploded against UNC with a 28-2 first-half spurt.
In the most recent volume of this troubling body of work, the Heels were stunned early as Clemson took advantage of a 26-6 run to build a 23-point lead midway through the opening 20 minutes of action.
With 17 games already in the books, the question is quickly becoming if UNC can patch these run-producing leaks, not necessarily when.
“I think it’s just going to have to come with time with this team, honestly,” Thompson said. “With some guys, it’s the first time being in the ACC in a road atmosphere. It just comes with time. That’s the only thing I can really think of, because it’s not something that’s just going to happen overnight.”
When asked if composure was playing a role with these breakdowns, Ginyard offered a one word response: “Absolutely.”