North Carolina

Tar Heels overwhelmed by Tigers

UNC coach Roy Williams stands in disbelief during a time-out after the Tar Heels fell behind by 20 points in the first half to Clemson at Littlejohn Coliseum in Clemson, S.C..
UNC coach Roy Williams stands in disbelief during a time-out after the Tar Heels fell behind by 20 points in the first half to Clemson at Littlejohn Coliseum in Clemson, S.C.. ROBERT WILLETT-rwillett@newsobserver.com

CLEMSON, S.C. – Clemson's defense was a fire hose Wednesday night.

To handle it, North Carolina tried to use a teaspoon.

That didn't work out. The Tigers won, 83-64, handing the Tar Heels their worst margin of defeat in the Roy Williams era by protecting the 23-point lead they took in the first 10 minutes.

In those deciding 10 minutes, North Carolina looked overwhelmed by the combination of Clemson's passionate press and aggressive half-court defense.

The Tar Heels looked stricken. Scared.

And those were the upperclassmen.

On the Tar Heels' first possession, Marcus Ginyard fumbled a simple pass out of bounds. And that wasn't even close to the Tar Heels' worst possession of the first half, because at least that time North Carolina advanced the ball past midcourt.

Never have the Tar Heels been so thoroughly exposed this season for what they are away from home (they are now 1-5 outside of Chapel Hill).

They are tall but not strong. They have no one who can regularly shoot dagger three-pointers - the kind Wayne Ellington and Rashad McCants once specialized in for UNC.

The UNC guards don't take care of the ball well enough and, when they do break away, don't make a team pay for pressing them often enough. The Tar Heels' older guys don't grab a game by the throat when it needs to be grabbed. And their coach...

"The head coach is doing a poor job with his basketball team," North Carolina head coach Roy Williams said. "And that's not easy to say."

"You're just not very good!" a delighted Clemson fan yelled at the Tar Heels in the second half, after he and the rest of the sellout crowd at Littlejohn Coliseum realized that no one in Carolina blue could hurt No.24 Clemson on this night.

Said Clemson coach Oliver Purnell: "We felt like we were the quicker, faster team, and so the faster the game went, the better."

If the Tar Heels don't improve from here, they will be a .500 ACC team that will likely exit by the first weekend of the NCAA tournament.

The Tar Heels (12-5) would not be ranked nearly as high as No.12, where they currently are, if their jerseys didn't say "North Carolina" on the front. UNC has won two NCAA titles in the past five years - a remarkable streak that also includes another Final Four - and so their reputation precedes them.

But, right now, by their own standards, the Tar Heels aren't very good. Their two most recent trips to South Carolina have shown that (the shocking loss to College of Charleston along with this one).

Maybe this UNC team will peak in March. Certainly, the potential is there. But it will need to get much better outside Chapel Hill to do so, and most of the current freshmen are at least a year away.

Remember the last time North Carolina played at Clemson? That was almost exactly two years ago. It was a fantastic game - one Ellington ended with a dagger three-pointer to win it.

Clemson pressed throughout that one, too, like Purnell's Tigers always do. And while it was effective at times, the Tar Heels had the players then (can you say Ty Lawson?) that made Clemson pay for defensive gambles that failed.

This time? Well, no.

By halftime, the Tar Heels had 15 turnovers and three assists, giving them the sort of assist-turnover ratio of a second-grade kid who still dribbles with both hands. They would end up with 26 turnovers.

Much of what happened Wednesday is because Clemson is very good. The Tigers' frantic style can wear anyone out (except Duke). And they have a man in the middle - 240-pound Trevor Booker - who simply outmuscled every Tar Heel who got near him.

What the Tar Heels wouldn't give for a guy like that.

But Tyler Hansbrough is gone. Booker and his teammates made Ed Davis and Deon Thompson look invisible for most of the game. Clemson started the first half with a 35-12 burst - it was shades of the Kansas-UNC 2008 Final Four game and the Jayhawks' 40-12 start.

Williams called a timeout this time during the onslaught. Didn't help.

Later, after Larry Drew threw a 30-foot, no-look pass into the front row, Williams just shook his head, looked down and muttered, "Whew."

Whew, indeed.

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