It was only mentioned a couple of hundred times during the broadcast, so you may have missed it. But apparently Clemson has a slight problem winning in Chapel Hill. And with this team's problems, that mark of 54 wins was in danger of being joined by a loss; they came through, however. The Tigers have now faced futility fifty-five times, and all remains right in the universe.
But first things first. Kendall Marshall got the start, to the glee of most Carolina fans, over Larry Drew. And he started well. The team still looked a rough when they first took the court, immediately turning the ball over, but didn't get in over their head. When Marshall left the floor, the game was tied at 7, in no small part because of a beautifully fluid drive to the basket by the point guard himself. Then Drew took the court, and... he was good, too! Carolina only had four turnovers in the first half, and took an eight point lead into the locker room at the half. They had eight steals in the first twenty minutes, and were running Clemson off the court.
That wouldn't last. In the second half, UNC would struggle at first, having trouble with the Tigers' slow pace and their tendency to give Clemson wide-open threes, some of which did manage to find their way in the bucket. But the defense pulled the team through. After Demontez Stitt cut the lead to two at 65-63, UNC would allow Clemson only one field goal for the last 7:50. Tyler Zeller and John Henson combined for eight blocks and held Jerai Grant to two points for the game, while the backcourt remembered how to apply pressure, adding to the steal total and overall flustering the Tigers. And they did without fouling, a point that led to cries of bias from the other ACC schools. UNC is back!
OK, not quite yet. In an interesting change from the first six seasons under Roy Williams, this team is hiding a sputtering offense behind a stronger defense. The Heels averaged 0.93 opponent points per possession through their first three games, and are 14th in the country in that category, currently. Even when Clemson was scoring, it was often on garbage shots late in the shot clock that happened to bounce the right way. Although they didn't corral as many defensive boards as I would like – there were a lot of long bounces, and Grant and Booker did a good job underneath.
But when Carolina has the ball, it's still to often leads to turnovers or missed shots. Reggie Bullock started strong, hitting three of his first four three-point attempts, only to go as ice cold as the rest of the team. He'd finish with 18 points, and he definitely benefited from Leslie McDonald's absence to get more looks when he was on the floor, but he wasn't a consistent scorer throughout the game. Tyler Zeller continues to be double-teamed and limited on the offensive end, allowed only six shots from the field. John Henson did better; despite two fouls before the first timeout, he would only have one the rest of the game, leaving him time on the court to get 14 points and a couple of really strong jams. Harrison Barnes was more of a liability, turning the ball over 6 of UNC's 14 times.
Overall, it was good game for the Heels. McDonald's absence shook up the staid 5-man substitutions, leaving lineups I haven't seen before on the court. Not all of them worked, but enough of them did, and I'm curious to see what pairings get more floor time in the weeks to come. This team is still along way from where we'd like them to be – Duke would crush them with perimeter shooting at this point – but they're showing promise, and puling themselves out of the three game slump that kicked off ACC play. A couple of more games like this and there may be a season yet.