CLEMSON - Marcus Paige thinks No. 19 North Carolina took a strong first step in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The Tar Heels (11-3) opened league play with a win for the first time three seasons with a 74-50 victory at Clemson on Saturday night.
Paige and his North Carolina teammates were reminded just how long it had been since they were 1-0 in the ACC after losing openers at Virginia and at Wake Forest the previous two seasons.
They quickly made sure that streak wouldn't grow to three, grabbing a 20-point lead in the opening half for their seventh straight win over the Tigers (8-5).
Justin Jackson led the way with 13 points while Kennedy Meeks shook off a stomach virus to add 12 points and 12 rebounds. Paige had 11 points and Brice Johnson 10 points for North Carolina's fifth straight win this season - and seventh in a row over Clemson.
"I think we made a step, I don't know if we made a statement," Paige said.
North Carolina has plenty of steps ahead, including a big one in its home opener against No. 14 Notre Dame on Monday night. If the Tar Heels get a similar effort as the one shown at Littlejohn Coliseum, there will be more victories ahead.
"That first half is the best that we played all year," North Carolina coach Roy Williams said.
That's when the Tar Heels used a 20-5 run over a 10-minute stretch of the opening period to gain control.
Jackson had nine straight points in the surge, which ended with North Carolina on top 27-10. Moments later Paige hit the second of three 3-pointers to make it 32-12.
Jaron Blossomgame had 13 points to lead Clemson (8-5), all in the second half when the outcome had been all but decided.
The Tar Heels eventually pushed the margin to 30 points.
North Carolina came in with a surging offense and defense - and showed that early on against the Tigers.
Clemson couldn't penetrate the Tar Heels' defense, settling for long jumpers that were off the mark or missing attempts inside with Johnson, Jackson and Kennedy Meeks pressuring every shot down low.
The Tigers ended with just five field goals to trail 39-17 at the half. It was Clemson's third half this season with five baskets, tying marks of futility in a win over Nevada and a loss to South Carolina this season.
Clemson's ACC trek doesn't get any easier. The Tigers play at No. 5 Louisville, Pittsburgh and No. 3 Virginia the next 10 days before returning home to face Syracuse on Jan. 17.
"I don't care who or where or when we play next," Clemson coach Brad Brownell said. "We have to play better. We have to be more tough-minded and we have to be tougher physically."
North Carolina coach Roy Williams was worried coming into the game, the third time in three seasons his club had to open ACC play on the road. His players eased Williams' concerns with their hot start. "When game time came we tried to give them confidence in pregame stuff and I think they played like it," he said.
While Clemson struggled, at least it won't get the chance to lose again at Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where it's 0-57 all-time. This was the only regular-season meeting between the Tar Heels and Tigers.
North Carolina: The Tar Heels have held all but one opponent this season to under 40 percent shooting. The eight straight to start the year was the longest such stretch in coach Roy Williams' 12 seasons at North Carolina. No. 1 Kentucky was the only opponent to shoot better than 40 percent (56.3 percent) in an 84-70 loss last month.
Clemson: Despite the loss, Tigers coach Brownell is the program's only coach with a winning record in January (18-14) since the school joined the ACC in 1953.
North Carolina faces No. 14 Notre Dame at home Monday night.
Clemson plays at No. 5 Louisville on Wednesday night.