CHARLOTTE -- Oliver Purnell sat down at the table for the obligatory postgame press conference, taking a long pull on his water and trying to clear his throat one more time to get past an afternoon spent encouraging his team.
No coach is happy with a loss, and Purnell wasn't overjoyed Clemson just dropped the ACC tournament championship to North Carolina.
But as he sat there, clearing his throat and drinking his water, there seemed to be a quick flash of all that's happened in the past five years come over him. Because rather than talk about how disappointed he was the Tigers couldn't find a way to win the championship, he spoke of how much he admired his team.
This is the one he's been waiting on.
"I thought our guys fought hard and really battled throughout the course of the tournament," he said, wheezing into the microphone. "I'm pleased with the direction and growth of our program, and I feel very optimistic about the future."
Clemson's regular season was the culmination of Purnell's hard work since he was hired, turning a 3-13 ACC disaster during his first year into the third seed for this weekend's tournament. The Tigers were poised to clinch an NCAA tournament berth for the first time under Purnell anyway, but rather than take a quick exit from the league tournament, they stuck around and tried to make history.
That ended up increasing their seed for the NCAAs to No. 5 and Clemson, after two years of disappointment, will finally be one of the 65 teams playing for the national championship. Purnell said the goal was to win it at the beginning of the year and the way the Tigers are playing right now, well, let's just say no one's looking at that name on the list and figuring it's a desirable matchup.
Purnell steadily built the Tigers into contenders, emphasizing tough defense and intensity, explaining physicality won a lot more games than pure talent. It's the same approach Rick Barnes used when he transformed the Tigers into contenders during the late 1990s before leaving for Texas.
But Purnell seems to be in it for the long haul. His first group of recruits is leaving this year as the guys who started the resurgence. If the new guys and the returnees can band together and keep it going, Clemson will become a constant power, not just the occasional flash-in-the-pan it's been used to.
"Oh yeah ... no disrespect to the older guys, but I like to use the word 'revamped,'" said senior Sam Perry. "They had their moments, kind of reborn, Cliff Ellis, those guys. But I like to say we were the guys who kind of revamped it, got it back. Great to be a part of it."
Purnell mentioned how he'd always grown up wanting to coach in the ACC and was pleased how quickly his first group took to the demands he placed on it. He knew it was going to be tough going for the first few years -- and even when they turned out better than expected within two years, there was always a collapse waiting around the corner that caused an NCAA tournament miss.
But this year, those close losses turned into close wins and Clemson kept surprising. Purnell reloaded with solid recruits and the Tigers were suddenly very dangerous.
Against the Tar Heels on Sunday, Clemson again played hard and came up short. Still, to lose in overtime, double overtime and by five points to the top-ranked team in the country isn't any shame.
"They are one of the best teams in the country," UNC coach Roy Williams said. "We were lucky the first two times we beat them."
Bobcats Arena was packed with orange fans, equaling the loud UNC contingent and making sure Clemson's presence was felt. It was yet another sign that Clemson can be a persistent power in something other than football.
Purnell sat back, wiped his brow and kept stressing his pride in his team. Perhaps he was thinking about how Clemson approached the ACC tournament the same way it had every other game -- fighting each other in practice, not taking the day off for a simple shootaround.
"I'm proud of the way our kids have played all year long and certainly in this tournament," he said.
Purnell will coach his first NCAA tournament game at Clemson against Villanova later this week. The goal of winning the national championship is upon the Tigers, where they're in the same one-and-done boat as the rest of the fortunate 65.
Clemson will travel to Tampa, Fla., for the matchup and will doubtless carry a few fans along as well. None of them will be thinking about Sunday, when a hard-fought game and the supposedly lucky purple uniforms weren't enough.
"We still got more games to come," center Trevor Booker said. "We're starting over this week."
And even with the loss to UNC still fresh in his mind, Purnell can relish what his team has accomplished. The NCAAs were the goal for every team in the country, but Clemson was one of the few who nabbed it.
"We're looking forward to six games," he said. "Six games is our goal."