CHARLOTTE -- Sam Perry ripped off his purple jersey and started leaping down the court, bellowing at the top of his lungs, while his teammates dissolved into one deliriously happy bunch, clapping each other on the back and drinking in the cheers at Bobcats Arena.
But when nobody on the team and only some of their parents were alive the last time Clemson advanced to the ACC tournament championship, clinching a trip on Saturday was cause for celebration.
"It's not as good as it gets," Perry said, still grinning 20 minutes afterward. "Just to this point."
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And that point, a 78-74 win over Duke, was yet another high one in what's turning into an historic season.
The Tigers claimed their first berth in the tournament championship since 1962 and will play top-ranked North Carolina today for glory Clemson hasn't seen since 1939. That year remains the only postseason tournament win in school history, when the legendary Banks McFadden led the Tigers to the Southern Conference pinnacle.
Clemson is the only charter member of the ACC to never win the league tournament and will make just its second appearance in the title game today. But as every one of the Tigers put it after beating the Blue Devils, history hasn't mattered to this point, so why should it now?
"What is 1962?," asked coach Oliver Purnell, seeming clueless to the number's meaning. After it was revealed, he brushed it aside much like his defense did to Duke's perimeter shooting.
"I think those weights are too heavy and insignificant," he said. "We're going to enjoy this now ... but when we wake up in the morning, today doesn't matter."
Clemson (24-8) earned a rematch with the Tar Heels, who were pushed to the brink of defeat each time the Tigers played them this year. Clemson lost 90-88 in overtime at home when Wayne Ellington knocked down a 3-pointer with less than three seconds to play and it also lost 103-93 in double OT at UNC, blowing leads at the end of regulation and the first overtime.
To get another crack at the Tar Heels, who are seeking to lock down the NCAA tournament's top seed and a postseason destination close to home, seemed like destiny. Clemson broke two streaks Saturday by snapping nine straight semifinal losses and beating Duke for the first time since Purnell took over, and ending another run of futility -- the 0-for-forever ACC tournament streak -- could be on the horizon.
"We're very excited to get that third shot at them," Cliff Hammonds said. "The way we're playing right now ... "
The Tigers knew beating Duke (27-5) wouldn't be as easy as the 82-48 coaster over Boston College in the tournament's second round. The savvy Blue Devils wouldn't fall victim to Clemson's press as easily and the way they shot the 3-pointer -- they led the ACC in attempts and ranked second in percentage -- was a tremendous concern.
But Clemson has its own strengths, namely, center Trevor Booker. The Devils had no height outside of Brian Zoubek, and he was mostly used to try to contain Booker instead of as an offensive option.
Booker muscled in for a game-high 18 points and never got into foul trouble as the Tigers turned a 31-30 halftime deficit into a 47-40 lead with 14 minutes to play. When Booker was guarded too closely, he flipped back out to Hammonds and K.C. Rivers, who stroked jumpers or drove baseline past Duke's smaller defenders.
The Devils immediately turned to their bread and butter, but the shot wasn't falling. The grittiness of guard Greg Paulus kept Duke from getting too far behind, but when ACC Freshman of the Year Kyle Singler took five shots from long range and came up empty every time, the game turned.
Clemson leaped ahead until Duke abandoned the 3-pointer and began working inside. Jon Scheyer canned three free throws to tie the game and Nolan Smith finally connected on a 3 for a 52-51 Duke lead with 10 minutes to play.
Booker finger-tipped Demontez Stitt's miss into the hole but was answered by David McClure's jumper on the other end. Rivers hit a 3, Duke's DeMarcus Nelson aced two free throws.
With the score tied at 56, 7:57 to go, Clemson saw an opening. Booker got the ball on the block but was covered, so he dished to James Mays, who laid in the pass and was fouled.
The third-worst free-throw shooter among the Tigers' regulars stepped to the line and got into his crouch.
Duke never got past it. The Devils' outside shooting once again disappeared -- they ended 6-of-26 behind the arc -- Mays delivered three more free throws to cap his 16 points and suddenly, Clemson was ahead 71-69 with 48 seconds to play.
Duke came up with a turnover, drove the lane and kicked back out to Singler. With only two points at the time, Singler set his feet beyond the arc and rose, firing the go-ahead shot that was certain to be added to the list of Duke's greatest baskets.
Clang. Clemson rebound.
"That's what's so great about this team," Mays said. "We really don't have a true center, we've got a bunch of forwards who are able to go out and guard guards. It starts to wear them down."
Clemson accepted the high-fives and focused on its next task. The Tar Heels, led by ACC Player of the Year Tyler Hansbrough, are a daunting challenge.
Then again, so was seeing if Clemson could rise over its to-this-point terrible tournament history.
"I really feel like we are peaking at the right time and I really can't think back on all the big plays, but I really think we had that mentality and attitude of fighting," Purnell said. "It was a great win for us and we're looking forward to playing for the ACC championship."
• Tigers' free-throw shooting made all the difference this time • 2D