Luke DeCock

If this strange night doesn’t end UNC’s dominance of Clemson, what ever will?

UNC's Roy Williams: “We’ve got to figure out a way to do it better”

Five Tar Heels score in double figures during win over Clemson on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018, at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C.
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Five Tar Heels score in double figures during win over Clemson on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018, at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C.

So if Clemson isn't going to win at North Carolina on a night it hits 15 shots in a row, on a night Luke Maye gets blasted in the nose by his own teammate's elbow and leaves a trail of blood on the court, on a night the university canceled classes for the next day in the middle of the second half, Clemson is clearly never going to win in Chapel Hill.

Ever?

There have been close calls in this improbable 59-game streak that includes games played in four different arenas, and Tuesday's 87-79 North Carolina win wasn't even one of the closer calls. But it did offer an unlikely confluence of circumstances that, at one point, raised the question in a very pointed and persistent way. Clemson got as close as two with 6:17 to go, and even if Roy Williams and his players weren't actively thinking about the streak, it was surely intruding upon their subconscious.

Williams, unusually, played Joel Berry and Kenny Williams the entire second half, right up until he cleared the bench with 15 seconds to play. Only Garrison Brooks played double-digits off the bench, and while some of that had to do with matchups against Clemson, clearly Williams wasn't holding anything back on this particular night, against this particular opponent, under these particular circumstances.

“I started the season at 67 and I'm going to end it at 97,” Williams said, but if the streak survived 2003 – the teams didn't play at the Smith Center in 2010 – it surely could survive this team, no matter how much it may confound its coach.

At Clemson's closest approach, the weight of history seemed to shift from the Tar Heels to the Tigers at that point. As it does in this vicinity.

“I think we got caught up in the moment, really,” Clemson's Shelton Mitchell said. “Especially with us, how we haven't won here.”

So the streak lives on, another year, another class of players – seniors or, a few months from now, those departing early, even if they don't know it yet – safely emerging from their UNC careers without becoming part of that forlorn group that accidentally puts a one in that loss column.

Not that it wasn't dramatic. Maye took a Kenny Williams elbow to the side of the nose and dropped like a stone, if you could get this much blood from a stone. Several towels and five stitches later, Maye was back, seeming no worse for repair. As a boxer, he'd probably be a little bit too much of a bleeder, but his rapid return certainly met or exceeded all hockey standards.

“I think it looks OK. I feel like I already have a girlfriend, so that's all good,” Maye said when asked for his appraisal of his nasal renovations. (Theo Pinson, earlier, had asked the same question from across the room: “Hey Luke, how's your face?” Pinson later, sans context: “I just gotta keep being Theo.”)

Combine that with Clemson's unbelievably hot streak to start the second half and it seemed like things were turning against North Carolina. But if the players weren't going to see this end on this night, neither were the students.

They may have been distracted by the alert that this had suddenly become a weekend night – there was a random standing ovation early in the second half, while the alumni looked curiously at each other, until the roar morphed into a chant of “No school!” – but when the result was in doubt the Smith Center was as loud as it has been all year.

That made it a collective effort to avert disaster, despite the strange circumstances, once again, as always.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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