UNC weathers storm, rains on Clemson

Down 13 with 7:53 left, Heels rally to oust Tigers, 88-81

`We knew ... we could still be in it'

Felton scores 29 points, including No. 1 seed's last 10

Acc Tournament

March 12, 2005|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - If yesterday's first quarterfinal game at MCI Center proved anything, it's this: You can take the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament out of North Carolina, but it's still pretty difficult to take the Tar Heels out of the tournament.

The Clemson Tigers, seeded ninth, looked as if they were on the verge of doing just that in their game against the tournament's top seed, but North Carolina stormed back from a 13-point deficit with 7:53 remaining to win, 88-81.

Junior guard Raymond Felton, who grew up in Latta, S.C., led the Tar Heels on a game-closing 30-10 run, scoring his team's last 10 points in a career-high 29-point performance.

"He took the game over," said Clemson junior guard Shawan Robinson, who led the Tigers with 17 points after scoring 24 in his team's opening round win over Maryland.

The win helped North Carolina (27-3), the nation's No. 2-ranked team, avoid becoming the first top seed to lose in the tournament quarterfinals since North Carolina State was upset by No. 8 seed Maryland in 1989 in Atlanta.

It marked the second time in less than a week that the Tar Heels came back in the second half, following Sunday's win over archrival Duke. It was the largest deficit North Carolina has overcome this season to win.

"We knew that no matter what, we could still be in it," Felton said.

It took a coaching move that Roy Williams learned from his mentor, Dean Smith, as well as a slew of calls that seemed to favor the heavy favorite, for the Tar Heels to get that opportunity.

With 7:53 remaining and Clemson (16-15) leading 71-58, Williams replaced his entire lineup and went deep into his bench, sending little-used reserves Reyshawn Terry and Byron Sanders into the game.

"He was trying to send us a message that, `Let's get some guys in there who are fresh, turn up the defense, you guys feed off their energy, get the momentum,'" said Tar Heels center Sean May. "I don't think he meant anything like, `You guys are terrible, go sit down.'"

Whatever the motivation, it worked. Taking advantage of Clemson's lack of a penetrating guard to break down North Carolina's defense, the Tar Heels immediately turned a steal by Jawad Williams into a three-point play by the senior forward.

It didn't hurt that one of North Carolina's reserves was Rashad McCants, who, in playing his first game after sitting out nearly three weeks with an intestinal virus, scored 13 points in 15 minutes, hitting a couple of crucial three-pointers down the stretch.

"He played great," Jawad Williams said of McCants. "He hit some big threes for us, and he gives us another scoring weapon out there."

After threes by McCants and Felton cut the Tigers' lead to 74-72, Clemson momentarily stopped the run to take a 77-72 lead on a three-point play by senior forward Olu Babaloa with 4:02 to go.

North Carolina tied it at 77-77 with 2:54 left, but the Tigers went ahead 79-77 on a driving reserve layup. It was the last field goal Clemson scored. A long three by Felton gave the Tar Heels the lead. He also made seven of eight free throws down the stretch to secure the win.

"When we were coming back, Coach said not to look at the score, just look at the time," said May, a junior. "Just make plays and get stops."

It also helped that the Heels kept going to the free-throw line, finishing 37 of 47 overall to 20 of 29 for the Tigers. Though Tigers fans screamed at the officials to call the game fairly, the Clemson players chose to blame someone else - themselves.

"I don't really know what happened, but we lost our heads," said Cheyenne Moore, a reserve forward. "We lost our composure, we lost focus. That was our main objective, to keep our focus. When you lose your focus, you end up on the bad end of the stick."

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