North Carolina

Tar Heels on top again

CHARLOTTE - Moments after beating third-seeded Clemson 86-81 on Sunday to win a second consecutive ACC Tournament, North Carolina guard Wayne Ellington raised an index finger as a reminder to several celebrating teammates.

"I was just telling them we've got one more championship to win," the sophomore said after the top-seeded Tar Heels won their 11th consecutive game. "This is a great one, and it's one that we're going to cherish ... but we did this last year, and now we want the bigger one."

That one would include cutting down similar nets at Bobcats Arena, en route to the Final Four, in two weeks.

By overcoming 20 turnovers, outrebounding Clemson by 15 and getting 24 points from Ellington, the Tar Heels not only beat the Tigers for the third time this season to win their 17th ACC title, they secured the top seed in the NCAA East Region. That means they won't have to leave the state to advance to the NCAA semifinals; they'll play their first two rounds in Raleigh (beginning Friday) and the second two in Charlotte, if they advance.

"I don't think it's an advantage, I really don't," UNC coach Roy Williams insisted, as he has for the past several weeks. "It's an advantage if you play well."

Several players, though, said that having such a baby blue-clad crowd did help them over the last few days, including Sunday. From the outset, Carolina gave them plenty to cheer about.

The game had many of the same elements as Carolina's two wins over Clemson during the regular season: the Tigers' full-court press, Ellington's sharpshooting, aggressive play in the lane.

Only this time, no overtime periods were needed.

Clemson led by one point at halftime and took a 49-47 lead with 15:44 left when K.C. Rivers (game-high 28 points) buried one of his six 3-pointers. But Carolina followed with an 8-0 run that included three points apiece for Ellington and tournament MVP Tyler Hansbrough.

The Tigers cut their deficit to four points on two occasions in the final 3:14, but the Tar Heels buried enough free throws on an inconsistent day at the line (14-for-24) to make sure Clemson got no closer.

Hansbrough finished with 18 points. But it was Ellington who remained Clemson's Achilles' heel, with 24 points on 10-for-13 shooting. In January, he scored a career-high 36 points -- including a winning 3-pointer -- at Clemson. Last month, he scored 28 against the Tigers in a double-overtime, come-from-behind victory.

"I think it's just their defense,'' Ellington said of his dominance against the guys in orange and purple. "They like to pick us up in the backcourt, and if we get out in transition out of that, they can forget about me sometimes, and I can get some easy baskets, and that gets me going."

And going. And going.

The loss was a depressing blow for the Tigers, who still earned an at-large NCAA Tournament bid hours later but remain the only ACC charter member to have never won the conference championship. (Clemson has won just one postseason tournament in its history, the 1939 Southern Conference Tournament in Raleigh.)

"It definitely hurts to have played [North Carolina] three times and lost,'' Clemson reserve Raymond Sykes said. "Every time we felt we should have had them. Now we have to get over this."

And get beyond it, like UNC.

While the Tar Heels said they enjoyed the postgame net-cutting ceremony, it was rather businesslike compared to last season.

"This is good,'' Hansbrough said. "But I think it's just another step in the journey of what we want to accomplish."

Meaning a Final Four berth two weeks from now. Then one more title.

"It feels great to be back-to-back champions," Ellington said. "Now we've got bigger goals. Last year, I think we got a little bit satisfied. Now, not at all."