Not the time to downplay Clemson's win
CLEMSON, S.C. -- You can call out the court storming all you want.
But spend an evening here at Littlejohn Coliseum. Talk to the students who suffer from a bit of an inferiority complex regarding their neighbors to the north. Chat with a seasoned fan like Gary Girmindl, who was watching his 512th consecutive Clemson home game, a streak that spans 31 years.
Their Tigers, who have never beaten UNC in Chapel Hill, had lost 10 straight games to the Tar Heels overall. So beating North Carolina, regardless of the transition the Heels are going through, means something down here.
So excuse the orange-clad faithful for letting loose and swallowing up their players and coaches after the Tigers pressured, trapped and flushed away the once-vaunted Heels 83-64 on Wednesday night in one of the more convincing wins in coach Oliver Purnell's increasingly impressive seven-year Clemson career.
As the Tigers built a 20-point lead, Girmindl said that beating the Tar Heels would mean the world to him.
After Clemson senior Trevor Booker nearly disappeared in the postgame swarm of students, he headed back to the locker room to catch his breath. But even some 20 to 30 minutes after the game, he was still shaking a bit.
"It means a lot to me,'' said Booker, who looked as if he was the most untouchable big man in the ACC with 21 points, four assists, two steals, nine boards and a few ferocious dunks. "This was the only team I haven't beaten since I've been here. Just to beat them gets a huge chip off my shoulder.''
Clemson has beaten Duke here. The Tigers did it a year ago and get another shot on Jan. 23 when the Blue Devils arrive. But North Carolina is different. There is more energy in the building when the Tar Heels are here.
"We've played these guys and they've always come back to win games,'' Clemson junior guard Demontez Stitt said. "I didn't want that feeling in the locker room again. We came out and were the aggressor. We made plays. For us older guys, we had to step up and take matters into our own hands.''
To understand Clemson's angst, you have to go back further than the "paper Tigers" stigma this program has had recently, with unblemished starts turning into disappointing finishes. No, you just need to look back at the 23-point collapse against Illinois on Dec. 2 in this same building. The Tigers were stunned when they got complacent and let the Illini come back to win the Big Ten/ACC Challenge game.
Purnell said beating South Carolina in the next game proved to him he had a team that had some passion and pride. But with a big lead against the Tar Heels, the Tigers knew they couldn't rest.
Stitt said the locker room after the Illini game hurt. You could tell just how sick it made the Tigers.
Booker said the team discussed Illinois at the half on Wednesday. They didn't want to have that ill feeling again.
So what they did was step on the pedal. They were able to withstand a mini-run by UNC and went on to cruise to a 19-point victory. The Tigers, who were expected to dip in 3-point shooting with the abrupt departure of Terrence Oglesby to Europe and K.C. Rivers to graduation, found their 3-point shooting against the Heels. Stitt, Tanner Smith, Noel Johnson and Andre Young took turns making 3s.
Purnell said the Tigers fell in love with the trey too much in the second half and nearly forgot about Booker. But that didn't last long as they continued to force turnovers (26 for the Tar Heels) and got to the free throw line (18-of-20), handing coach Roy Williams his most lopsided regular-season loss at Carolina.
But what happens now? Expect the Tigers to be just as disruptive when Duke plays here. But Clemson can have a split personality on the road. Without the crowd to generate enthusiasm, will this team be able to mimic the defensive intensity? We'll find out Saturday at NC State.
"I believe that even if the crowd wasn't here, we were going to win this game,'' Stitt said. "But it's true we get extra pumped up for games like this. I guess on the road we have to create our own energy.''
Clemson has had its Carolina moment. Now it's gone. Duke could be next. But if the Tigers want to be more than a regular-season, home-dominating team from this point forward, they must be just as furious a team on the road. Booker should be nearly as dominant and the 3-point shooting just as timely.
That may be asking a lot.
But at least for one night here in the Palmetto State, Clemson had the Tar Heels in their orange-infused den and didn't let go.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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