CLEMSON — Jaron Blossom-game wore a jacket and tie Thursday, smartly dressed as he typically is for games while recovering from a broken leg. The redshirting freshman was seated on the bench next to K.J. McDaniels, who also wore street clothes and a walking boot around his left ankle. McDaniels injured his ankle in practice during a shoot-around and Clemson coach Brad Brownell is unsure of his status for Saturday’s game at Virginia Tech.
Clemson rarely enters games against North Carolina with promising odds, even in its home gym. When the schedule was released, Clemson promised to be out-talented against the argyle-accented team arriving in Littlejohn Coliseum on Thursday night. And without perhaps its best two athletes, Clemson went from out-manned to severely out-manned, falling to North Carolina, 68-59
That an unranked North Carolina team in as close to rebuilding mode as North Carolina gets in the Roy Williams Era — losing four players to the first round of the NBA draft in the spring — was able keep a sellout crowd subdued and rout Clemson on its home court was a reminder of how much recruiting and player development must be done at Clemson. It was a reminder of how far the Tigers are from returning to meaningful games in March.
Clemson (13-14, 5-10 ACC) is in danger of recording its first losing season since 2003-04 when Clemson finished 10-18 (3-13 ACC) in Oliver Purnell’s first season.
“North Carolina played as well as anyone has played in our building,” Brownell said. “We got beat by a better basketball team. I didn’t think our overall intensity was terrific.”
As is typically the case, the Tar Heels (20-8, 10-5) were taller than the Tigers, especially at the guard positions.
The Tar Heels were faster. North Carolina entered sixth in the country in possessions per game (73.3); Clemson entered ranked 326th (62.2).
The Tar Heels were stronger. James McAdoo possesses an NBA-type body.
And the Tar Heels more skilled than Clemson. UNC shot made eight of 22 3-point attempts. Clemson was 4 of 17 from three. The Tar Heels had 19 assists against nine turnovers. Clemson had 15 turnovers and 12 assists.
While Brownell’s teams are often under-manned they typically play with defensive energy and execute at a high level. That was not the case Thursday.
Clemson guards struggled with UNC pressure and seemed to sense pressure that wasn’t there. Clemson starting guards combined for 4 of 25 shooting.
Only seniors Devin Booker (25 points, 11 rebounds) and Milton Jennings (12 points, 10 rebounds), who have just one home game remaining in their careers, gave consistent energy.
“As a senior we are told to call our guys out,” Jennings said. “Me and Book played really hard I’m just upset that our urgency, in such a big game, wasn’t there. I remember being at halfcourt looking at it. … it was ugly basketball. It was our worst second half all year.”
And it’s been Clemson’s worst second half of the season in recent memory, losing six of seven games, hoping for better days ahead, days when McDaniels and Blossomgame are out of street clothes.