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It wasn't a win, but it was the next best thing

Brad Brownell doesn’t want to hear about being capable of winning. He wants to win. That’s understandable.

Making the NCAA Tournament is about winning. A lot of games. Against enough good teams to convince the people who meet in a boardroom in early March that you belong.

Clemson hasn’t been deemed worthy in six seasons. Brownell knows his team won’t just freely get the benefit of the doubt. Despite the quality wins that piled up during the nonconference schedule, in the next two months, a few cherries need to appear on top.

Tuesday’s 89-86 overtime loss at home to North Carolina could have been one of those cherries for Brownell’s team. It doesn’t mean the game had no significance, both within his locker room and in the eyes of the nation.

It just wasn’t the main thing—the thing that matters most.

“This was a winnable game,” Brownell said. “We felt good about it, played well offensively to win. You’ve got to finish games off.”

It was winnable despite an awkward mismatch inside that Brownell and his staff knew would be an issue. A 51-32 disadvantage on the boards—including a 23-10 gap in offensive rebounding—is perhaps a wider gap than they anticipated. So is a 23-3 spread in second-chance points that forced the Tigers to be exceptional on first-shot offense.

Brownell attributed some of the rebounding issues to on-ball defense, a weakness for his team that he hopes can be remedied as conference play continues. He was displeased with the discipline his team showed, and it went beyond simply allowing 89 points—the most Clemson has given up since a fateful trip to Minnesota on November 30, 2015, and the second-most ever given up by a Brownell-coached Clemson team.

The Tar Heels hit 10 three-pointers in the game, with 7 of them coming in the second half. Joel Berry II led the Heels with 31 points and connected on 7 threes, including two that Brownell said were “from Seneca”. Clemson’s head coach says his team helped foster that environment.

“They were just way too comfortable,” Brownell said. “It started at the beginning of the half.”

Even with the disparity on the glass, Clemson had its share of successes. The Tigers shot 46 percent from the floor, made 11 threes, grabbed ten steals out of 18 forced turnovers, and blocked nine shots. Jaron Blossomgame had 24 points, Avry Holmes had 20, and they weren’t even the late-game heroes.

That honor belonged to Marcquise Reed, whose early-clock trifecta on what could have been the final possession of regulation eventually forced overtime. He scored 17 points on only nine shots, an efficient assassin who couldn’t quite get the Tigers over the hump in overtime.

Roy Williams had a different take on Clemson’s defense. He said the Tigers guarded his team better than anyone had all season, a credit to the off-ball defense that frustrated the Tar Heels and turned almost every possession down the stretch into an isolation set at the top of the key.

North Carolina won a competitive game, even with some blunders at the end. Clemson lost it, but an important thing happened that gives Brownell and the players and coaches in the locker room no solace whatsoever.

Clemson proved, once again, that it can compete at a level worthy of inclusion in the NCAA Tournament field. It can go toe-to-toe with a Final Four-caliber team that presents a difficult matchup and put itself in position to win.

The Tigers have already won three games by five or fewer points. They already have a bunch of quality wins. They need some more, but on the nights when they don’t get them, this kind of a loss doesn’t do anything to hurt the reputation of a squad that looks more like a contender with each passing game.

“You’re going to have to win a bunch of close games,” Brownell said, “because you’re going to hopefully be in a bunch of them.”

The Tigers almost certainly will, and based on the evidence, there’s a high likelihood that they won’t lose them all. That won’t make Brownell sleep better, but it might make him happier in March.

“I’m very encouraged with our team, encouraged with the way we played today,” he said. “We had chances to win. We just didn’t finish the job.”

–Photo Credit: Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

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