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January 18, 2011

History on the Line?

Coming off Sunday night's 78-58 debacle in Atlanta against Georgia Tech, one would think the last thing North Carolina needs is to play a team that defeated the Yellow Jackets by 25 points less than a week ago.

But that's exactly what will happen on Tuesday night, as UNC returns to the Smith Center to face off against Clemson in an 8:00 pm tipoff.

The Tar Heels (12-5, 2-1 ACC) take on a well-rested Clemson (13-4, 2-1 ACC) team that has had five days off to soak in its triumph over Georgia Tech and to prepare for UNC.

"We're playing pretty well right now. We obviously had the outstanding second half against Georgia Tech, where we just about made everything. And hope we didn't use all of our bullets in one game," said Tigers head coach Brad Brownell earlier this week.

"But, you know, I think our guys are adjusting to what we're trying to do. I've gained confidence through the last month, and we're playing a little bit better basketball right now and we certainly have our hands full with North Carolina."

Certainly the Tar Heels can only hope the Tigers don't come out and play the way they did against Georgia Tech, when they nailed a whopping 85 percent of its shots in the second half (17-of-20) in establishing a new school record for ACC play in a single game shooting the basketball---a blazing 69.2 percent from the floor.

Brownell, the first-year coach of the Tigers who was formerly at UNC-Wilmington, inherited a team with a solid nucleus of veteran players, including seniors Jerai Grant and Demontez Stitt and juniors Andre Young and Tanner Smith.

Grant, the nephew of former Clemson and NBA standout Horace Grant, leads the Tigers with an average of 6.9 rebounds per game and is second on the team with an average of 12.9 points per outing.

Clemson's all-time leader in field goal shooting percentage, the 6-8, 220-pound Grant has shot better than 70 percent over the Tigers' last eight games---all eight of which have been victories.

"Jerai is playing very well he's a guy that probably hasn't----I know he hasn't been a primary focus here in his time at Clemson," said Coach Brownell. "I think Jerai is a young man who is prime example of somebody who has gained more confidence with good play."

"He's a primary target for us. He's a primary option. We want to get him the ball inside. And he's responded and now feels very good about his game. And I think he's excited about his role on our team," added Brownell of Grant.

Stitt, a 6-2 point guard, is Clemson's leading scorer at 13.5 points per game. Despite missing two contests after injuring his knee in the Tigers' December 12 loss to Florida State, he's returned with a vengeance over the last six games.

Since his return Stitt has been shooting better than 58 percent from three-point range while putting together a better than four-to-one assists-to-turnovers ratio (27-6).

Coach Brownell has leaned heavily this fall naturally on these two seniors---both of which remember the closest Clemson came to beating North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

As freshmen, Grant and Stitt were on the 2007-2008 Clemson team that took UNC into overtime before eventually falling to the Final Four-bound Tar Heels.

"When I took the job, I immediately met with (Grant) and Demontez, my two seniors, and told them that that we'd do our best to have the best season we could. And that I wanted those two guys to be leaders in the program and respected what they accomplished here before I got here and would lean on them heavily to help me get this team going in the right direction and was going to count on them and ask them to do more things," said Brownell.

Young, a 5-9 guard, is Clemson's third double-digit scorer at 10.7 points per game, and he's currently leading the team in average assists per game at 3.0.

Smith, a 6-5 junior wing, is averaging 8.9 points and 3.9 rebounds per game, while Clemson's fifth starter, sophomore forward Devin Booker, is averaging 8.3 points and 5.2 rebounds per game.

While the Tigers rank 11th out of 12 ACC schools in scoring average (70.4), they rank first in the league in field goal shooting percentage (51.4 percent), three-point shooting (47.4 percent), and even in free throw shooting (84.1 percent) in its three conference games---wins over Georgia Tech and Miami and a loss to Florida State.

Perhaps more impressively is the fact that Clemson leads the entire ACC in scoring defense, allowing just 59.9 points per contest.

Unlike former Clemson coach Oliver Purnell, who was known for a highly-aggressive full-court defense, Brownell prefers a tight halfcourt defense that depends on footwork, movement, and execution.

The Tigers haven't allowed a single team to shoot better than 50 percent against them---a very solid statistic at this stage of the season.

Long story short, the Tar Heels are going to have to play much better than they did Sunday night if they are to extend North Carolina's winning streak of 54 consecutive games against Clemson in Chapel Hill going all the way back to the 1925-1926 season.

UNC never lost to the Tigers in the old 'Tin Can.' They never lost to them in venerable Woollen Gym, nor did they ever fall to Clemson in Carmichael Auditorium.

And of course over the past quarter century the Tar Heels have been perfect as well against Clemson in the Dean E. Smith Student Activities Center.

It's a streak that UNC head coach Roy Williams doesn't like to talk about very much, because he's smart enough to know that all streaks someday come to an end.

Certainly the Clemson people are more than tired of talking about the streak---especially Brownell, who of course as a first-year coach has nothing to do with past Tiger failures against the Tar Heels.

'The only streak I've talked to our guys about is the fact we've won eight in a row and that we're playing better basketball (than when we lost four of six earlier in the season), and we need to go into the environment with great confidence," Brownell said.

"Certainly there's a lot of people I would imagine that haven't had a lot of success against North Carolina in their building. And unfortunately we haven't had any. But I don't know that that plays any part in what's going to happen at 8:00 or for the next 10 years when we play them."

For the Tar Heels, the last thing they need to be thinking about when they take the court Tuesday night is the streak.

With a quick turn-around coming off Sunday night's debacle, UNC needs to be thinking about making smart decisions, communicating on both ends of the court, and making some shots.

If UNC comes out with the same type of start they've had in its three previous outings, this may very well be the year that Clemson finally gets it done in Chapel Hill.

UNC certainly has history on its side in this one.

But Clemson has the momentum and the winning streak.

And for those Tiger seniors who remember how close they came three years ago, this is their last chance to reverse the course of history.

As is the case in the wilderness---in those places where Tigers still roam freely and attack at will---North Carolina's players had better be alert and ready to take care of themselves Thursday night against a team that's clearly out for blood.






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