The two plays that may have had the most impact on North Carolina's grinding 64-62 victory over Clemson Saturday in Littlejohn Coliseum had two things in common.
Both were made by freshmen, the first a sudden dunk by Harrison Barnes that put North Carolina ahead by two with 3:02 remaining and the second a steal and layup by Kendall Marshall that stretched North Carolina's lead to four with 1:20 remaining.
And, both plays came as a surprise to the players who made them.
Barnes didn't plan on leaving Clemson's Milton Jennings on the floor in the wake of his spin move down the lane that ended with a dunk that hushed the loud Littlejohn crowd.
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And, when Marshall pulled the ball away from Clemson's Demontez Stitt, the Tar Heel point guard didn't realize he had the ball until he heard the crowd noise.
Together, those plays ultimately tilted the rugged game to the Tar Heels (18-6, 8-2 ACC), who weren't pretty but were effective enough to take a positive step past the disappointment of their loss at Duke on Wednesday night.
"This shows we're able to grind out wins," said Barnes, who finished with a game-high 20 points.
At times, it looked more like rugby than basketball, and missed shots filled the air like confetti.
North Carolina won shooting 37 percent from the field and just 14 percent from 3-point range. The Tar Heels made only two of 14 3-point attempts, one of the makes coming courtesy of center John Henson (14 points, 12 rebounds), who had attempted only one other 3-pointer this season.
Clemson (17-8, 6-5) was no better, shooting 34 percent and compounding its troubles with 16 turnovers.
Still, when the two teams came out of their timeout huddles with 3:20 remaining, the game was tied at 51.
The Tar Heels had diagrammed a play to get the ball to Henson or Barnes but what the freshman did with it was unexpected. Seeing Henson defended, coach Roy Williams expected Barnes might come off the Tyler Zeller screen and take a jumper from around the foul line.
Instead, Barnes twisted past Demontez Stitt, left Jennings in a heap and made sure there was no chance of him missing the shot, stuffing it with his right hand for a 53-51 North Carolina lead.
"That came as a complete surprise," Barnes said. "I got as high as I could and just dunked it."
Marshall marveled at what he saw.
"I was reacting to the way the dude (Jennings) fell," Marshall said. "To see (Barnes) go up and keep elevating, that was a Blake Griffin-type dunk."
Then it was Marshall's turn.
After the teams had traded misses on four possessions, Marshall sized up Stitt as he approached the top of the key with the Tigers still trailing by two. Knowing Stitt drives to score more than to dish to teammates, Marshall swiped at the ball as Stitt approached.
"I tried to get a good grip on it and rip it out. I didn't realize I had it at first," Marshall said.
When Marshall (18 points) converted the layup at the other end, North Carolina had a 55-51 lead and was able to seal the game from the foul line, where the point guard made seven of eight free throws in the final 54 seconds.
"That was a huge dunk that took the crowd out of the game, but the steal was one of those daggers," Zeller said.
Williams wasn't exaggerating when he called it an ugly game, but there were places that sparkled for the Tar Heels.
Marshall's 10-for-11 performance at the foul line was critical, especially considering he was 4-for-8 in his two previous games. Henson had four blocked shots, three early against Clemson's Jerai Grant, effectively neutralizing the Tigers' center who failed to score.
In an area where Clemson won 13 of its last 14 ACC games, it was a victory that felt better to the Tar Heels than it may have looked.
"These kind of games define you," Marshall said. "Sometimes you want to tough it out. To come into Clemson and do it felt good."