CLEMSON -- There was no way that shot counted, right?
Clemson's Tigers, dejectedly filing through the Littlejohn Coliseum tunnel afterwards, seemed to be wearing those questions as expressions. Somehow, someway, North Carolina's Wayne Ellington had gotten loose and drilled a 3-pointer for a 90-88 overtime win Sunday.
That upset over a No. 1 team, so close the No. 19 Tigers had already seen their rise in the Top 25 today, disappeared in a flash of white nylon. After taking every charge the Tar Heels had and throwing it right back at them, the Tigers again had the rug yanked rudely from beneath their feet.
Never miss a local story.
It was Clemson's 14th loss in the past 16 games against Top 25 teams. The Tigers might be used to it but being that close to a program-defining win ... well, coach Oliver Purnell didn't mind admitting there were quite a few tears in the locker room.
"Our guys realized we let one get away against a good team," Purnell solemnly said, the anxiety of 45 grueling minutes clearly evident on his face. "We have to close the deal."
As the Tar Heels (15-0, 1-0 ACC) strutted through the tunnel, laughing and celebrating another rallying win, the Tigers (12-2, 0-1) seemed to be wondering where they lost the game. Was it:
• When K.C. Rivers missed the front end of a one-and-one, Clemson holding an 81-77 lead with 1:44 left in regulation? The miss turned into Danny Green's 3-pointer and two possessions later, a tied ballgame.
• The three -- three! -- cracks at the game-winner in regulation, when Trevor Booker, James Mays and Demontez Stitt all had a chance at a three-foot bucket and each missed?
• The 14-of-27 disaster from the free throw line, a problem thought solved until Sunday? Even Stitt, the team's most reliable shooter (88.4 percent) coming in, only hit half of his 10 attempts.
• The lunging of David Potter to Ellington's right, clock winding down in OT, trying for a steal? He missed (obviously) and Ellington had all the time he needed to set up and shoot for the most important of his 36 points.
It was a combination. The Tigers kept UNC wrecking ball Tyler Hansbrough in check, got double figures from four players and accomplished almost every one of their goals, and still had to settle for a loss.
"We've shown we can hang with the best," Rivers said, after a 24-point game. "It just seemed like he wanted that last shot."
"I thought this could be the best shooter I ever recruited," UNC coach Roy Williams said, motioning to Ellington at his right.
"I just felt good," Ellington shrugged, even after it was pointed out he raised his career-high from 23 to 36.
Clemson hung with UNC throughout, keeping the Tar Heels out of their set offense with sticky defense and transition. A late rally gave the Tigers a halftime lead, which they held for almost 18 minutes of the second half.
But just as Clemson was poised to final-stamp it, ahead 81-74 with 2:34 to go, Ellington hit a 3-pointer and Green echoed with another. A flurry of off-balance shots and missed free throws allowed the Heels to creep within a point, which was equaled when Hansbrough sank a free throw.
Clemson's last three shots bounced off the rim and the game headed to overtime, where Clemson erased a one-point UNC lead on Mays' fingertip dunk over Hansbrough and a 10-footer from Potter. With an 86-83 deficit, 1:31 to go, though, the Heels remained calm, putting Ellington on the free throw line.
He swished both and Mays missed an inside shot on the other end. The clock ran to 13.9 seconds when Green fouled out, putting Stitt on the line for two shots.
The freshman redeemed himself by making both shots for an 88-87 lead. The Heels got the ball to midcourt, called timeout with 13.9 to go, then figured out Clemson's 1-3-1 defense wasn't looking too good for a penetration.
Williams called another timeout with 5.4 showing. The crowd was screaming, Purnell was instructing.
"We didn't want them to go in the lane to Hansbrough, we wanted them to shoot over the top," he said.
It almost worked, until Potter went for the steal and Ellington rose up, perfect form, over the fingers of Rivers, who desperately leaped just a second too late.
Then it was having no choice but to prepare for the next game -- an "unbelievable trap game" against Charlotte on Wednesday before stepping back into conference play.
"It's back to working to get better," Purnell said. "I just told them we are not where we need to be yet."