Rashad McCants, plagued all night by foul trouble, scored nine crucial points over a late five-minute stretch to lead the Tar Heels past Clemson, 68-66, before a boisterous crowd of 17,451 at the Dean Smith Center, sending the Tigers home with a loss for the 49th time in as many trips to Chapel Hill.
McCants, who went to the bench with his fourth personal foul just 3:23 into the second half, made the most of his 22 minutes of action, finishing with 20 points and four rebounds, and giving the struggling Heels a much-needed juice injection.
"Rashad is a great player,' said point guard Raymond Felton, who finished with 15 points and eight assists. "He was sitting out because he was in foul trouble. And hey, he's a great player and if he has an open shot he's gonna come out and knock it down for us."
Without McCants, UNC (10-5, 2-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) had trouble scoring. In fact, the Tar Heels went scoreless over a 6:13 stretch of the second half, watching the Tigers turn a 43-39 deficit into a 49-43 advantage, capping a 37-16 run that dated back to the final eight minutes of the first half. For the majority of that stretch, McCants was on the bench. But when he returned, the Heels came alive.
"I think it was important for me to come back in and play aggressive and not be tentative and not worry about how many fouls I have because I am playing for the team and all five of my fouls (would) go to the team," McCants said.
But it wasn't just the Asheville freshman that lifted the Heels. Carolina's defense buckled down in the second stanza, holding the Tigers (10-2, 0-2) to just 35.5 percent from the field in the second half after allowing them to shoot 51.7% in the first period. In fact, Clemson's leading scorer, Edward Scott (17 points), went the final 12 minutes without a field goal.
"The biggest thing was support in transition and trying to keep Scott out of the middle," said Jawad Williams (19 points). "He's a great player and when he gets in there he makes a lot of things happen. Our four and five men did a great job of helping out."
McCants felt helping on Scott was key too.
"We got a lot of help on him," McCants said. "And he makes them go, so if you stop him, you have a good chance. And we did." Yet the Tar Heels found themselves in a familiar situation, one they didn't handle well in a loss at Miami 10 days earlier.
With 19.2 seconds left and UNC ahead 64-63, Felton, who missed the front end of a one-and-one in Coral Gables, calmly sank a pair of free throws to put the Heels ahead by three. And while Miami drained a 3-pointer to send that eventual loss into overtime, on this night Carolina held, forcing Scott to badly miss a 3-pointer, in which Carolina turned into a Williams layup and five-point lead with two seconds remaining.
"I was just concentrating and knocked my shots down," Felton said about his key free throws. "That's what I have to do every game."
UNC coach Matt Doherty said the Heels benefitted from the Miami experience.
"I really think we learned from the Miami game," Doherty said. "Raymond made foul shots. We handled that same exact situation being up three with 20 seconds to go and got the w2in. I'm just real, real happy."
Yet without McCants' focus and composure, and of course his 8-13 performance from the floor, UNC's effort and grit may have been for not, and the streak could have ended.
"That's the type of player he is," Williams said about McCants. "Rashad is a true scorer. And I think he showed his leadership tonight when he stepped up and hit some big shots at the end.
"He's a great player and we know he can do that for us."
Doherty said remaining focused was big for McCants.
"Rashad getting in foul trouble and never losing his focus while he was on the bench and getting in there and just... huge shots and gave us a big time lift," the coach said.
Chapel Hill native Chris Hobbs (seven rebounds) and Sharrod Ford (11 boards) also finished in double figures for the Tigers with 10 points apiece.
It appeared as if the Tar Heels were going to run Clemson out of the building, and rid the Tigers of thoughts of ending the streak early by jumping out to a 27-12 lead with 8:17 left in before intermission. Felton nailed a trio of 3-pointers and Williams and McCants each six points apiece - on three thunderous dunks - igniting the partisan crowd.
But when Felton left the game with an upset stomach with 7:51 left in the half, Clemson exploded for a 20-4 run and actually took the lead at 32-31 with 2:15 left in the half. But a conventional three-point play by Byron Sanders put UNC back up 34-32 before the teams went to the locker rooms deadlocked at 38.
But tonight was about UNC rebounding from the loss at Virginia and keeping alive a streak that has taken on a life of its own.
"It's good that we defended the streak. But we had to just go out there and play tonight. The streak wasn't really in our minds. We just wanted to play hard and get a win."
Senior writer Andrew Jones is in his seventh year with Inside Carolina. He hosts a late afternoon radio show on ESPN Radio, WMFD AM630 in Wilmington and can be reached via e-mail at: AndrewJones@AM630.net.