CHARLOTTE -- Put the celebration on hold for a 55th year.
Top-ranked North Carolina dashed Clemson's bid for its first ACC tournament title on Sunday, outlasting the Tigers 86-81 and punching its ticket as the top seed in the NCAA tournament. The Tigers, playing in the tournament final for just the second time since 1962, doggedly hung in throughout the game but were undone by the Tar Heels' quickness and transition, leaving them the sole remaining charter member of the ACC to never win the league tournament crown.
"I'll be bitterly disappointed in about an hour," coach Oliver Purnell croaked, hoarse after an intense afternoon. "But I'm very proud of how our team played in this tournament. We probably played well enough to win against most teams in the country, but we played a great one today and we needed to play great."
The Tigers will join the Tar Heels in the NCAA tournament as a high seed, which was a foregone conclusion before the weekend began. But Clemson (24-9) wanted to final-stamp it by winning the tournament and the automatic pass that goes with it.
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The Tigers were close, very close. But as North Carolina's frenetic pace turned missed Clemson shots into Tar Heel points, the cushion was just enough for UNC to win the league tournament for a league-high 17th time.
"Hard when they got Ty Lawson out there ... he's a jet," said Sam Perry, still sitting shirtless in his chair half an hour afterward. "In the first half, I thought we did a great job of transition. The second half ... not the same story."
Playing a team they'd lost to twice already -- in a combined three overtimes -- the Tigers knew they could match up with the Tar Heels. To win, it'd take a combination of things.
One, lock down on either Tyler Hansbrough or Wayne Ellington. Two, hit every inside shot that's taken.
Third, and most importantly, after every possession, make or miss, get back on defense quickly.
One was fine at first and collapsed late. Two bit the dust in a crucial stretch in the second half. Three rode the back of two as the Tar Heels spurted ahead with 14 minutes to play and held a comfortable margin for the duration.
UNC (32-2) relied on Hansbrough and Ellington to spot it a 50-49 lead and increased it to 55-49 with 13:48 to play. Clemson fought back, but the layups and dunks that appeared so easily before were now being swallowed up by the Tar Heels' long defenders, and the Tigers had no choice but to turn their heads, watch Lawson and Co. hit a chip shot on the other end and try to score on their next possession.
Trevor Booker and James Mays missed a couple from point-blank range and the Tar Heels went up 72-59, the blue section of the half-and-half crowd roaring its approval. The Tigers called timeout with eight minutes to play, rolled up their sleeves and went back to work.
Clemson ran off seven straight points to get back in the game, but the cushion never got past four points. Clemson began fouling and was rewarded when Lawson, Ellington and Marcus Ginyard began missing, but the Tigers couldn't convert on the other end.
Demontez Stitt drove the lane and was fouled, but missed a free throw that would have cut it to four with 19 seconds to play. The rebound bounced off North Carolina and out of bounds, giving the Tigers another chance.
Mays got the ball and was fouled on a shot, putting him at the line with 16.8 seconds to play. So automatic in the semifinal win over Duke, Mays clanked both attempts.
Still, Ginyard only hit one of two on the other end and Clemson rebounded. Freshman Terrence Oglesby was hacked on a 3-point try which fell well short but even as he purposely missed the third free throw, trying for a rebounded 3-pointer and a miracle, the damage was done.
UNC accepted the building's congratulations and cut down the nets. Clemson walked to the locker room disappointed but encouraged.
"We've lost the ACC tournament before, this is our fourth time doing that," Cliff Hammonds said. "But we've always had another game to play after that, but before it was in the NIT. Now it's in the NCAA tournament. Our season's not over with."
The Tigers didn't play bad defense -- on the contrary, they blocked 10 shots, swiped 14 steals and caused 20 turnovers. But the shots, outside of K.C. Rivers' game-high 28 points, weren't falling, and everybody knew Hansbrough was going to erupt eventually.
The kid they call "Psycho T" ended with 18 points, trumped by Ellington's 24. Booker, matched up with Hansbrough all day, began banging around at the end to finish with 12 but Hammonds (six) and Mays (seven) couldn't find the touches.
"Our confidence is sky-high right now, even though we lost (Sunday)," Booker said. "We're looking to make a run in the tournament. It's been a disappointment, but it calms me down to know we got more games to play."
• NOTE: Hansbrough was selected MVP of the tournament and led three Tar Heels on the all-tournament team. Ginyard and Ellington joined him on the first team along with Rivers and Booker.
Hammonds and Mays made the second team, joining Duke's DeMarcus Nelson and Virginia Tech's A.D. Vassallo and Malcolm Delaney.