Morris: Chapel Hill is Neverland for Clemson basketball

rmorris@ thestate.comJanuary 26, 2014 


FLIP ANOTHER digit on the streak. Add another year. And remind yourself the next time you believe “this could be the time” that, well, it will not be. Clemson will never defeat North Carolina in men’s basketball as long as the game is played in Chapel Hill.

The number of winless trips to a place the UNC faithful like to call “Blue Heaven” reached 57 on Sunday night at the Smith Center. For Clemson and its fans, this place has become “Black Hell” since the teams first met 88 years ago.

On rare occasions during the streak — which is the longest in NCAA history by one program over another at home — it seemed beforehand as if Clemson had a chance. This was one of those years.

Clemson was off to a 4-2 start in the ACC. UNC was 1-4. The Tigers were playing some of the best, most tenacious defense of any team in the league and perhaps the country. The Tar Heels were offensively challenged, particularly from the perimeter where they have one 3-point shooting threat.

Clemson had gotten the best of Duke two weeks ago at home, and had proved road tough with wins at Boston College and Virginia Tech. UNC had dropped four of its previous five games and appeared vulnerable at home, where the Tar Heels lost to Belmont and Miami.

Yet no matter the sound reasoning behind believing Clemson might win, it never works out. A palming the basketball call by the official cost Clemson in a one-point loss in 1974. The Tigers blew an 11-point lead with 3:12 to play in 2008 before losing in double overtime.

On Sunday, Clemson struggled early on the defensive end, but was getting the ball in position to score on offense. Then the UNC basketball gods seemed to place their collective hands over the Clemson basket.

“The first half, they had some shots that they would normally make that they just missed,” said UNC coach Roy Williams, who ran his home record against Clemson to 8-0. “You feel very fortunate, you feel lucky.”

In Clemson’s case, you feel very unfortunate, you feel very unlucky. To appreciate how Clemson has felt, you must understand how long this streak has been going on.

UNC has kept the streak alive while playing games in four venues, from the Indoor Athletic Center or Tin Can (three games) to Woollen Gym (15 games) to Carmichael Auditorium (13 games) to the current Smith Center (26 games). Ten coaches have walked the UNC sideline during the streak, and 13 for Clemson.

Cliff Ellis endured the most agony with 10 losses as Clemson’s coach in Chapel Hill. Dean Smith retired as UNC’s head coach with 25 home wins against Clemson over a 35-year period.

That first game in 1926 was played so long ago that players were getting accustomed to a new rule that allowed the fouled player to shoot his own free throws. Previously, each team designated a player to attempt all its foul shots.

Not for another 12 years was the center jump ball eliminated after every made basket. Not for another 23 seasons were coaches allowed to talk to their players during timeouts.

When Clemson embarked on an eight-game road trip to open that ’26 season, the Tigers traveled by train. Sunday, they returned to Clemson in a chartered jet. Four players on the ’26 roster were members of the football team, and the basketball coach, A.A. “Tink” Gilliam, was an assistant football coach most of the year.

Calvin Coolidge was living in the White House when this streak started and there have been 14 more U.S. Presidents since. Andy Griffith, who made a name for himself as an actor, was born six months after the first time Clemson played in Chapel Hill. He died two years ago having never seen his alma mater lose to the Tigers at home.

So, as much as UNC’s Williams and Clemson’s Brad Brownell attempted to downplay the streak in the days leading up to Sunday’s game, it was impossible to ignore it.

“Thanks for not asking me about the streak,” Williams said to the media after the 80-61 decision that was never in doubt. “I never mentioned it to my team, because they have nothing to do with it.”

A few UNC players admitted they had talked about the streak among themselves.

“People were saying (this might be the year the streak ended),” said UNC forward James Michael McAdoo, “but at the end of the day, we just had to have pride and realize that every time we’re not only representing ourselves, but also the school and the guys that came before us. ...

“There was a sense of responsibility. We didn’t want to get those phone calls and text messages from the former players and be that team (that lost). Thank God we weren’t.”

No, it was not. Nor apparently will any other UNC team that ever plays Clemson in Chapel Hill. It just will not happen.

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