Wednesday’s Thoughts: Beating UNC was personal for Clemson’s Brad Brownell
Clemson’s Brad Brownell did not want Tuesday’s 82-78 win over North Carolina to beat about him at all.
When I asked him what this victory in particular meant to him personally, he deflected the moment and made it more about his team.
“It is great because this team just needs to keep winning games. As much as anything it is that.” Brownell said afterward.
But Tuesday’s win over the defending national champions was big for the Tigers’ head coach in so many ways. In his previous 10 games against the Tar Heels, he was 0-10. He had come so close before in other occasions. In his first year at Clemson, the Tigers lost by two points in Littlejohn and then suffered a five-point overtime loss in the semifinals of the ACC Tournament to the Tar Heels.
Two years later, his Tigers hung tough with UNC, only to see the Tar Heels pull away late to get the win.
Two years ago, Clemson went to Chapel Hill, where it has yet to win, and were within four points late in the game, only to watch North Carolina make one last run to win again in another close game.
Then last year, the Tigers had the Tar Heels on the ropes and had the ball with a chance to win the game at the end, but Avery Holmes missed a free throw and the Tar Heels forced overtime and ended up winning by three points at Littlejohn.
Of course two weeks ago in Chapel Hill, Clemson made a school-record 15 straight shots and scored 56 points in the second half, but despite cutting an 18-point second-half deficit to two points on three different occasions, the Tigers could not get a defensive stop when they needed to and ultimately North Carolina won another close game.
So you can imagine what was going through Brownell’s mind when he saw his team’s 16-point halftime lead evaporate when Joel Berry knocked down a jumper from the free throw line with 2:05 to play to tie the game at 74.
Maybe it was, “here we go again.” Brownell had seen this movie before.
However, this time there was a different ending to this particular movie. All season, Clemson had played with a grit no team under Brownell has played with since his first team. They have made the big shots and got the big stops when they needed to in almost every occasion this year. They were 5-1 in games decided by five points or less.
Even though they have lost their team captain and perhaps their best player for the year in Donte Grantham, they keep fighting even when everyone else is counting them out.
Once again we were counting them out after Berry’s game-tying basket. We all just knew North Carolina was going to find a way to win again.
Remember last year, when Holmes missed the free throw at the end that would have won the game? Well, this time Clemson made the play. Marcquise Reed, who has been clutch for most of the year, drained a three-pointer with 1:42 left to play to put Clemson back on top for good.
Following a North Carolina miss on its next possession, Reed drove the ball inside and fed it to Elijah Thomas who made the bucket with 29 seconds to play to expand the lead to five points.
Clemson was not going to let this game get away. Moments later when the Tar Heels had an opportunity to cut the lead to two points with under 10 seconds to play, Aamir Simms and David Skara denied UNC’s Cameron Johnson an opportunity to get a layup as Skara blocked the shot and Shelton Mitchell rebound the ball.
Mitchell sank both free throws on the other end of the court with eight seconds to play to seal the Tigers’ four-point victory and begin a celebration Brownell and Clemson have been waiting so long for. Finally, they got that much needed win over North Carolina.
“I’m certainly glad to finally beat North Carolina and Notre Dame,” Brownell said. “I have not beaten those guys yet so I at least wanted to beat them. I have been close several times.
“But this is more about what this team is doing than it is any of that. That is secondary to your team feeling good about themselves, getting better, improving and competing hard. There is still a long road left and our team has a lot they are going to have to deal with without our main guy. We are still trying to work through that, but the crowd certainly helped us a lot and our guard play was outstanding.”
All of that is certainly true. But Brownell’s program finally beat North Carolina. Now they know if they see the Tar Heels in the ACC Tournament, they don’t have to just believe they can beat them, they know they can.
Believe me when I write this, last night’s win over UNC was personal for Brownell and the Clemson program.