The most difficult portion of North Carolina’s conference schedule wasn’t supposed to begin until the second week of February – that closing gauntlet featuring two games against Duke, two against Virginia and another against Louisville, for good measure.
This, the first week of the ACC schedule, was supposed to be the more manageable part – the easy part. Turns out, though, that was a lie.
Days after losing their conference-opener by double-digits at Georgia Tech, the Tar Heels needed overtime on Tuesday to escape Littlejohn Coliseum with an 89-86 victory against Clemson, which led early and rallied late at the end of regulation.
Easy? It was a laughable thought early here on Tuesday, when Clemson led by as many as seven points not long before halftime. It was comical late, too, while the Tigers came close to erasing an eight-point deficit in the span of 90 seconds.
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About the only thing that looked easy for the Tar Heels on Tuesday was that six-minute stretch in the second half when Joel Berry, the junior point guard, couldn’t miss from behind the 3-point line and in the final seconds of overtime.
That’s when Kenny Williams, the sophomore guard, scored UNC’s final points on an unguarded layup and coach Roy Williams clapped – and undoubtedly exhaled a little bit, too. The Tar Heels trailed early in overtime but took the lead for good on Kennedy Meeks’ layup with 71 seconds remaining.
Fouled on the play, Meeks missed the free throw, but Clemson came up empty on its next possession. The Tigers in the final minute missed four consecutive shots from the field, allowing UNC to pull away and leave Littlejohn victorious.
UNC in overtime found some measure of redemption after a collapse of sorts late in regulation.
The Tar Heels led by eight points with five minutes, 15 seconds remaining, but they couldn’t hold the lead in the final minutes of regulation. Clemson needed less than 90 seconds to cut its deficit to one, but then the Tigers went cold and missed five consecutive shots from the field at one point.
UNC looked like it would prevail, at last, in the final minute, but Justin Jackson, the junior wing forward, missed the front end of a one-and-one with 27 seconds remaining. Five seconds later, Clemson guard Marcquise Reed pulled up from the right wing and made a tying 3-pointer.
The shot brought the crowd to its feet, while the Tar Heels attempted to push the pace on offense. Roy Williams elected not to call a timeout – he rarely does in those situations – and Berry, the junior point guard, committed a turnover seconds later.
Berry tried to redeem himself and went for a steal but instead fouled Avry Holmes, who missed the front end of a one-and-one with 4.4 seconds remaining. After a timeout, Berry drove the length of the court and missed a running shot high off the backboard, sending the game into overtime.
Before Tuesday night at Clemson, Berry had never scored more than 24 points during his three seasons in college. He scored 21 in the second half – and finished with 31 points, overall – to lead the Tar Heels to a tense triumph.