North Carolina jumped out to a 14-point halftime lead Thursday evening at Clemson and withstood a late charge from the Tigers for a 68-59 victory that gives the Tar Heels 20 victories for the ninth straight season under Roy Williams.
"I'm happy to get an ACC win on the road. We finished as ugly as we can. We got out-rebounded by 12 in the second half. It was sloppy. We can't have that. The second half felt like I feel, which is not good," said Williams afterwards.
"(We've had) great players. Great interest from the fans (over the years). Fans have helped a lot at home.," Williams added about the 20th victory, which marks the 40th time in 43 seasons and the 45th out of 55 seasons that North Carolina basketball has reached that milestone.
The Tar Heels picked up its fourth straight win---its largest win streak so far this winter in Atlantic Coast Conference play---while also picking up its fourth win on the road this season in conference competition.
With one remaining ACC road contest next week at Maryland, the Tar Heels have a chance to finish with a winning record away from home this season in conference play, and they could still mathematically finish in second place if they win out.
Carolina got a season-high 16 points out of senior Dexter Strickland in his final trip to Clemson's Littlejohn Coliseum.
Strickland was in the building three years ago when Clemson overwhelmed the NIT-bound Tar Heels by over 20 points---the only victory the Tigers have gotten over UNC in the last 16 games in the series.
But that wasn't the case this time around, as UNC's fast start took the crowd largely out of the game.
"We played good in the first half. Not our best. But in the second half we were even worse. Coaches got on us. We can't afford to do that against better teams. We have to have more confidence and be more aggressive," Strickland said.
"We had a good start and never got their crowd into the game," added Williams. "I've been here before (at Littlejohn) and remember when you couldn't hear yourself at all."
"Dexter had two or three dunks that really helped us."
Strickland has a recent stretch of action in which he's produced 19 assists with just nine turnovers.
"(I'm) just making the right decisions. Remain calm. Not rushing things game after game," he said.
All five Tar Heel starters were in double figures against the Tigers, with Reggie Bullock scoring 12 points, James Michael McAdoo and P.J. Hairston 11 each, and Marcus Paige 10 points.
"12 points, nine rebounds, six assists, zero turnovers. That's pretty good," said Williams of Bullock.
UNC jumped out to a 38-24 halftime advantage on the strength of an 18-6 run over the final half of the period, along with solid rebounding from Carolina's smaller lineup.
"First half we did some good things. But we took a couple of 3-pointers a little too quick," said Williams.
The second half was much sloppier for the Tar Heels, as they turned the ball over more than twice as many times as they did in the first half and were out-rebounded by Clemson, which helped the Tigers make a game of it.
"We were acting like a bunch of pansies (rebounding in the second half). I told James Michael he needs to finish the ball around the basket," Williams said.
"Marcus (Paige) had two second half turnovers that were two of the worst he's ever had playing basketball. I know his mom was screaming at the TV (back in Iowa) because I could hear her from here. We played as sloppy as we can in the second half."
"We had two turnovers at half. I can remember five of the seven we had in the second half just like that. Tomorrow is March. We shouldn't do a lot of those things. In the second half my coaching stood out (laughs)," Williams said.
"We made some bone-headed plays down the stretch. We had a hard time blocking out (Devin) Booker," added P.J. Hairston.
While UNC yielded a 12-2 Tigers run that brought them briefly within seven points (66-59), the Tar Heel defense clamped down, neutralizing Clemson down the stretch and allowing the visitors to maintain a working margin.
"Basically we turned turnovers into points. Making those shots into threes," added Hairston, who has now been in the starting lineup for UNC for five games---four of them wins for the Tar Heels.
"Basically (the smaller lineup) gives us opportunities, especially me, to take it at their big men," Hairston continued. "It spreads the court so we have lanes to drive. Clemson does great as a team on all levels. We set some good screens to get our shooters open. They used us slowed in the second half and we didn't have as many fast-breaks."
The UNC win was a nice birthday present for Hall of Famer Dean Smith, the Tar Heel legend who turned 82 years old on Thursday.
"Dean Smith, today is his 82nd birthday. We celebrated yesterday with some red velvet (cake) and ice cream and it was all downhill from there."
Carolina finishes out its regular season slate Sunday at home against Florida State, and then with a pair of contests next week in College Park against Maryland and the Smith Center finale next Saturday night against Duke.
With UNC's NCAA Tournament path seemingly blazed at this late stage, it might be easy for some Tar Heel fans to look ahead to the huge rematch with the Blue Devils, and its possible conference standing implications, but the players aren't looking that far ahead.
"(It's a) big-time rivalry (with Duke)," said Bullock. "Big-time players want to step up on that stage. I'm worried about only Florida State right now though."