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Some Gotta Win, Some Gotta Lose

Orange Tigers got the blues

NCAA BASKETBALL: DEC 30 Clemson at North Carolina
December 30, 2015: North Carolina Tar Heels forward Brice Johnson (11) and Clemson Tigers forward Josh Smith (33) go the lose ball during the NCAA Men’s Basketball game between the Clemson Tigers and the North Carolina Tar Heels in Chapel Hill, N.C. The North Carolina Tar Heels won 80-69.
Photo by Chris Rodier/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

For decades it was an annual occurrence, starting almost exactly 94 years ago on Jan. 15, 1926. The inaugural meeting was held in a gym called the Indoor Athletic Court, better known as the Tin Can.

That Friday road game was the Tigers’ third in three days on a Big Four tour that on Jan. 16 concluded at NC State. All four North Carolina-based contests yielded losses.

Later the playing floors on which the Tar Heels performed hosting duties moved to Woollen Gym, then Carmichael Auditorium and, since 1987, to the Smith Center.

Each meeting, 59 to date, produced the same ultimate result: North Carolina defeated Clemson in Chapel Hill. That’s 0-59 for the Tigers under 14 different head coaches at the same in-conference school. In-conference meaning the Southern and, since its founding in 1953-54, the ACC.

Zero victories as in nada, none, null set, zip. And so forth.

Zero, as in do-you-have-to-bring-this-up-every-time-we-play-at-Chapel-Hill?

Fortunately in this case, sparing everyone from confronting what’s surely the oddest streak in American sports, the Tigers and Tar Heels have met just once annually since the third ACC expansion was completed in 2006. Now they alternate sites.

This gives the folks from South Carolina a breather every other year. The arrangement allowed one Clemson coach to flatly guarantee his team would not lose at Chapel Hill during an upcoming season. Faced with an incredulous reaction, he quickly admitted the Tigers weren’t coming to “blue heaven” that season at all.

They’re coming this year. On Saturday afternoon, two days before the football team faces LSU in pursuit of its 30th straight win and third national championship in four years. Against a UNC basketball squad enduring struggles unmatched in the past decade under Hall of Famer Roy Williams.

Fans who hoped to live to see the streak end know they have a chance in 2020.

Of the nearly five dozen Chapel Hill encounters, just 10 (16.9 percent) were decided by single digits. Five times the Tigers were within a basket as the final buzzer sounded. (Not literally inside a basket, just in terms of the score.)

Then there was the 2008 game decided in double-overtime on an early Sunday evening in mid-February, a game in which Oliver Purnell’s squad applied unrelenting defensive pressure and led for the first 39 minutes and about 35 seconds.

Coming in Clemson was 17-5 with five wins in eight ACC contests. Carolina was 21-2, 6-2 in the ACC. The Heels boasted three starters who went on to help win the 2009 NCAA title, including ’08 ACC Player of the Year Tyler Hansbrough. But wobbly Quentin Thomas was temporarily their point guard, standing in for starter Ty Lawson, sidelined for six ACC games by a sprained left ankle.

Clemson was guard-driven, led by K.C. Rivers, an All-ACC junior, and Cliff Hammonds.

UNC had seven turnovers in the first 4:41 and trailed by 11 points at halftime. “I don’t know what happened to us early,” said a perplexed Williams. His team was still behind by 11 with 3:12 to go.

At which juncture wing Danny Green (still an NBA stalwart in 2020) scored eight of UNC’s next 10 points in under two minutes, including a pair of 3-pointers. This even as a Clemson assistant urged his boss in vain to abandon the team’s gambling defense. Meanwhile the rattled Tigers threw away the ball on three straight possessions; Clemson freshman Demontez Stitt, an .808 foul shooter, missed a one-and-one with 36 seconds left; and Thomas made a layup with 25.4 seconds remaining to tie the score at 82. UNC went on to victory after two extra periods.

“You can’t win here!” Carolina students insouciantly chanted in cutting Cameron-like fashion.

UNC Wins At Chapel Hill
By Single-Digit Margins
(Clemson Points Listed First)
Score Date Met
23-24 1-3-36
59-65 1-5-52
60-61 2-2-74
72-74 1-9-75
70-73 1-26-80
72-77 1-27-82
79-88 1-28-98
66-68 1-14-03
93-103** 2-10-08
79-88 1-16-18
** Two overtimes.