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UNC 81, Clemson 79: Down Coach Williams, Heels pull out back-and-forth battle at Littlejohn

Coby White erupted again and Carolina improved to 8-0 on the road in ACC play.

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Clemson Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

It wasn’t pretty, but Carolina entered March like a lion by holding off a hungry Clemson squad in an 81-79 victory Saturday night in Littlejohn Coliseum. In a battle the No. 5 Heels (24-5, 14-2 ACC) almost certainly would have lost before the New Year, assistant coach Steve Robinson took over for a dizzy Roy Williams and led UNC to a gut-check win for the program’s 21st win in the last 23 meetings with Clemson (17-12, 7-9).

Freshman point guard Coby White led the Heels with 28 points, six rebounds, five assists, and two steals. The scoring machine shook off five turnovers to hit 9-of-16 shots from the field and 6-of-11 from distance for the second outing in a row. White scored 62 points on only 30 field goal attempts over the last two wins.

Senior guard Cam Johnson added 19 points on 6-of-8 shooting from beyond the arc, including two huge long balls in the final five minutes. White assisted one to stretch the lead to 70-63 with just under five to play, and sophomore forward Garrison Brooks assisted the other on a nice extra pass with the shot clock winding down to make it 75-68 with 2:16 remaining.

Senior forward Luke Maye was the third UNC player to score in double figures, contributing 13 points and 10 rebounds for his 12th double-double of the season. Senior guard Kenny Williams continued to struggle mightily with his shot, but he had nine points, six rebounds, and three assists. Williams also made 3-of-4 free-throws in the final 12 seconds to protect the lead.

Williams missed the last freebie, though, allowing Clemson senior guard Shelton Mitchell to drive the length of the floor and potentially send the game to overtime or even win it. But White got in excellent position and put his hands straight up, causing Mitchell to lose control of the ball for his fifth turnover of the night with about five seconds left. The Heels ran out the clock with Williams heaving the ball in the air to the other side of the court before the Tigers tracked it down for an 80-foot heave at the buzzer. No good.

Clemson fans wanted a foul call on Brooks’ help defense for contact on Mitchell’s back with his left forearm, but that would have been an unfortunate and inaccurate bailout.

Tigers senior guard and leading scorer Marcquise Reed posted a team-high 24 points on 10-of-16 shooting while adding three assists and five steals. Sophomore guard Clyde Trapp scored 15 points, senior forward Elijah Thomas chipped in 14 with 11 rebounds, and Mitchell had 11.

White interrupted a sloppy start to the contest by drilling three consecutive three-pointers in a 65-second span – the first two assisted by Williams. The problem was that not much else was going on for the Heels, as they trailed 20-19 after that torrid stretch.

Carolina trailed most of the first half until White nailed a fifth 3-ball for a 35-33 advantage with one minute to play. That’s when referees noticed that Coach Williams had collapsed on the sideline with a bout of vertigo, and the Hall of Famer had to be helped to the locker room before missing the entire second half (Williams confirmed that he is OK).

It’s not that the Heels didn’t miss a beat without their leader – it just ultimately didn’t matter. In what is becoming a theme, they found a way to win. Carolina made only 26-of-63 (41.3%) attempts from the field and 16-of-24 (66.7%) from the free-throw line, compared to 47.4% and 77.3%, respectively, for the Tigers. UNC also committed more turnovers, 14-11, and barely out-rebounded Clemson, 39-36. White, Maye, and Brooks all each finished the contest with four fouls, too.

The Heels came out on top largely due to their ability to buckle down at key moments and work from beyond the three-point line, which has been a dear friend almost the whole season. UNC made 13-of-33 (39.3%) and seemed to come up with one at all the right spots. The Tigers, meanwhile, connected on 8-of-22 (36.4%).

The Heels looked like they were taking control of the game early in the second half. Carolina increased a 39-35 halftime lead to 46-37, but the offense began to stagnate against a strong D and the tough Tigers brought it to the Heels. Reed’s layup gave the hosts their biggest lead of the second half, 54-48, at the 11-minute mark.

On the next possession, in what was probably the least ideal shot selection imaginable, Brooks canned a long jumper to end a seven-minute field goal drought for the Heels (0-8 FG, 2-4 FT, four TO) and cut the lead back to four. Maye then buried a three-pointer, made a three-point play, and Carolina was back in business.

A press-break outlet pass from White to Williams resulted in an easy lay-up and a 77-70 UNC advantage with just over one minute remaining. A couple of missed free-throws and an empty possession made Carolina sweat out the last minute, but once it was over, the Heels stood one win away from a perfect ACC road season and kept pace in the race for the conference title.

UNC will try to finish out the ACC regular season perfect on the road when they travel to Chestnut Hill to take on Boston College Tuesday night.