CHAPEL HILL — History could not have been more cruel.
North Carolina blew a game for the ages on Saturday, losing in overtime 79-76 at home to Clemson for the first time in 93 years.
The visiting Tigers had never won a game in Chapel Hill, and the celebration afterward was stunning to a big crowd in the Dean Dome that had come for what was assumed to be a certain victory.
Roy Williams blamed himself for not telling his players to foul on Clemson’s last play in regulation, but the truth is, his players choked in the final two minutes. Carolina was up 68-58 with 2:08 to play when Clemson went to a full-court press that confused the Tar Heels. They never recovered.
In the final minutes, the Tigers outscored UNC 12-2, forcing the Heels into three turnovers and a frantic timeout by senior Brandon Robinson that Williams didn’t want. Still ahead by 3 with 12 seconds to play, Clemson drove the length of the floor as a sense of doom settled over the Carolina sideline.
“I didn’t remind them to foul,” a forlorn Williams said.
Clemson forward Aamir Simms pulled up from the left side of the three-point line and drilled the tying shot with three seconds to play. For all intents and purposes, that was the game. UNC was rattled and nervous throughout the extra period and the noise inside the Smith Center reached fever pitch.
UNC wilted in the chaos.
A game that was destined to make history with either team winning, ended in an historic meltdown that typified the entire UNC season and might’ve put the rest of the season in dire jeopardy.
Carolina is now 1-4 in the ACC, 8-8 overall. And you have to wonder, if the Tar Heels didn’t win this game, can they beat anybody?
Williams remains tied with Smith at fourth on the all-time NCAA wins list at 879. Carolina has lost three in a row and seven of its past eight.
In the postgame, Williams refused to blame his players, saying the game came down to his final instructions to his team.
“That loss is my fault,” he said.
He put his team in its full-court end-game defense, “22,” and he instructed them they were out of timeouts, to keep a man on the ball and watch the screens.
“And that was it,” he said. “They’re dribbling the ball across the 10-second line and I said ‘You didn’t remind them to foul.’ We do it in practice. I believe in it. I’ve had some great moments as a coach, and I’d say right now this is my lowest.”
Just the fact that Carolina had no timeouts was an indication that something wasn’t right. But that was apparent from the moment Clemson came out of a huddle and dialed up a full-court press that seemed to catch the Tar Heels completely off guard.
Carolina, which had worked on its press offense at the very end of practice the day before, went into full panic mode.
Williams said it had nothing to do with the 59-game home win streak over Clemson. That wasn’t why Carolina choked, he said. It was because once again, this team couldn’t make basic plays with the game on the line, couldn’t play with a big lead or with a big crowd in its support or with its coach fit to be tied, in part because of the all-time wins but also because this was as close to an automatic win as you get in the ACC.
There is simply no way in the world Carolina lost this game. And yet it did.
This one will linger. This one will reverberate. This one dropped UNC to the bottom of the ACC standings.
There was a time when UNC won games like this. The Heels came back from 15 in 2008 to defeat Clemson, as they’d done in 1975, 1982 and 1990. Since the schools played their first game ever in the 1926 season, Carolina winning 48-24 in the old “Tin Can,” and across nearly a century of basketball, in different arenas, under different coaches and eras, North Carolina had led the series 59-0 at home.
History collapsed onto Carolina this afternoon in what might’ve been the worst two minutes in the history of UNC basketball.
And as cruel as it was, it was somehow fitting.
Carolina has now hit rock bottom. After 93 years, the Tar Heels have lost to Clemson.