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UNC vs. Clemson: Three Things Learned

The defense is now no longer a fluke.

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Clemson Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports

How many times have we seen this script: the Tar Heels are playing an early season ACC contest on the road, the calls aren’t going their way, the shots aren’t falling, and the team they are facing is motivated to get the win because they need a boost to prove they belong among the best in the conference?

That script played itself out again in Clemson, as the Tar Heels consistently had trouble hitting shots against the Tigers and had to deal with inconsistent officiating that saw pure muggings go uncalled while touch fouls were whistled. They also had to overcome their own frustrations in settling for jump shots which aided in a lack of calls in the first half. When the final horn sounded, though, the Tar Heels ended up with a 65-55 victory that saw Clemson just flat out give up in the final two minutes.

It’s Carolina’s first 3-0 start in the ACC since the 2016 Final Four season, and yet another Quad 1 win for this squad. The team without a single Q1 last year now has four with the calendar barely into 2024.

So what did we learn about Carolina after this win against the Tigers?

The defense is legit

Carolina, for the most part, shot horribly on Saturday. They just hit 41.7% from the floor overall and 34.8% from three, and it included an atrocious 35.7% from the field in the second half alone—the half they won by ten. Carolina did it to themselves to some extent, settling for shots instead of running offense, but credit the Clemson gameplan for using the time-honored gum-it-up defense against the Tar Heels.

So, how did Carolina never trail by more than four and win going away? Defense. Even compared to the Tar Heels’ shooting woes, the Tigers shot an even-worse 36.2% for the game (and an eye-popping 32.3% in the second half). Despite the refs being whistle-happy in the first, Carolina didn’t let it affect how tight they played the Tigers. The spotlight here goes to Armando Bacot, who had the assignment of guarding P.J. Hall and succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Hall was held to just 10 points on 4-13 shooting and fouled out. The whole Clemson team went just 1-18 from three the entire game, and while a couple of the looks were open, they had to either fight to get them or they had someone in their face. Starting with the OU win, the Tar Heels have turned up the pressure defensively, shutting down the Sooners, Panthers, and Tigers in tough situations.

What’s most exciting is that when they struggle on offense, their defense hasn’t been affected. In the last two games, you felt there were times when the opponent could hit some shots and run away with the game while the Carolina offense struggled, yet the Tar Heels worked and kept the games within reach. It culminated yesterday, when Carolina’s defense held Clemson scoreless over the final five minutes. This isn’t the “they didn’t score from the field but hit a few free throws” scoreless, but rather the “they did not score a point over the last 5:02 of the game” kind of scoreless.

Elliot Cadeau is in his freshman slump

It seemed as if the reclassified first year player was starting to enter the typical downturn against Pitt, and it became crystal-clear he's hit that dip against the Tigers. He was quickly hit with two fouls in the first four minutes of the game, and had to play sporadically during that half as a result. He passed up good shots, and then took a couple of shots that were clearly not in the flow of the offense. He played just 19 minutes, only scored four points, and was on the bench at the end of the game as Hubert Davis opted for Seth Trimble’s defense during the final stretch.

The great news for Carolina is that while he’s been in this slump the Tar Heels have compensated for it and continued to roll along. The other good news is that Cadeau still seemed to fight through it to make some good plays. The next level for Cadeau is to work through this and break through the wall to bring the confidence to the floor. Once he does, you can expect Carolina to hit another level.

Carolina’s mental toughness is no longer a question

Fellow Tar Heel Blog writer Evan Davis noted this after the Pitt win, but it felt like this type of situation was one where those strides in the mental toughness would crack. Carolina could feel a little too good about finally getting over the hump against Pitt, know a loss against Clemson could be excused, and just reset for the Wolfpack on Wednesday. Clemson played into that by being a little overzealous in how they celebrated and defended against the Tar Heels.

This really was a game where in the past we would have seen the Tar Heels fold. Again, the officiating wasn’t great, the best Carolina players were having trouble, and the opponent was charged up. Still, the Tigers could never stretch a lead out. Time and again, a Tar Heel would step up to stop Clemson from building momentum and wouldn’t let the Tiger crowd take over. In the end, the Tar Heels were the more mentally tough team, as Clemson just threw in the towel in the game’s final minutes.

You see it in the effort by Harrison Ingram. He didn’t have the best of defensive outings and started slowly on offense again, yet it was his quick-response three late in the second half that seemed to put the nail in any Clemson hope for a win. Armando Bacot did a ridiculously good job on defense against Hall while putting up a 14 point/16 rebound effort, and Cormac Ryan fought through another ankle injury to play some insane defense late in the second. The Tar Heels are playing with a mental toughness we haven’t seen on the court in several seasons, and as we get deeper into ACC play that will become even more important.