Behind Clemson’s improbable winless streak at North Carolina: Is the curse real, and can this year’s Tigers break it?
Clemson plays at North Carolina Tuesday night, and that means it’s time to bring one of college basketball’s more remarkable streaks out of the closet for another updating.
That’s the Tigers’ all-time record in Chapel Hill. Over nine decades starting in 1926, on four different North Carolina home courts, through 14 Clemson coaches and 16 U.S. presidents.
College basketball is unpredictable and flighty, prone to zigs and zags and ups and downs. Nobody wins forever. Even John Wooden lost in the Final Four.
Are the basketball gods listening? Are they ready to smile upon Clemson – at long, long, long last?
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Clemson was No. 12 and North Carolina No. 13 in 1980. The Tar Heels won 73-70.
The Tigers were No. 2 to North Carolina’s No. 19 in 1997. The Tar Heels won 61-48. The streak rolled on.
Of the 58 North Carolina victories, 13 were decided by 30 points or more, 27 by 20-plus, only six in single digits or overtime. And obviously, the Tar Heels usually have beaten Clemson no matter what the venue. The overall series is 131-20. Dean Smith went 68-13 against the Tigers, Roy Williams is 19-2.
And when it comes to March, the gap in program history is Grand Canyon-wide. North Carolina has been to 20 Final Fours, Clemson none. The Tigers’ one Elite Eight appearance was 38 years ago.
Could it be time? That gets asked every Clemson trip to Chapel Hill.
Perhaps an omen: There have been only three Associated Press polls in history that had Clemson above both North Carolina and Kentucky in the poll. Twice in 1997 -- and last week.
Who could describe what it’s been like for the Tigers, and the maddening frustration through generations? Clemson assistant athletic director Tim Bourret also is color analyst for the Tigers basketball broadcasts. By his count, he has seen 31 of the 58.
“I’m trying to think if maddening is the right word. It’s certainly a goal for Clemson people who are fans and pay attention to all Clemson sports. Obviously football’s king at Clemson, but that’s one thing all Clemson fans want to see.”
He mentioned 1982, and the North Carolina team destined to win the national championship with the help of a freshman named Michael Jordan. “We were actually up nine with 10 minutes to go. And then James Worthy stole the ball and went in and dunked and got the crowd into it, and they ended up beating us 77-72.”
He mentioned the winters of 1974 and ’75 — before his time at Clemson – when the Tigers with Tree Rollins lost by one and two points.
“There’s one factual thing I know is right from ’75, Clemson was up 30-14 in the first half, which I believe is the biggest lead Clemson has ever had in Chapel Hill. Mr. Bradley (the late long-time Clemson SID Bob Bradley) told me that in ‘73-74, which was Tree’s freshman year – he swore this was true – that there was one possession late in the game that North Carolina was pressing us, the ball was in the backcourt and Tree Rollins got called for three seconds.”
There was also 1998, when Clemson had to finish the last 90 seconds with four players because everyone else fouled out. North Carolina won 88-79, but the four Tigers outscored the five Tar Heels in those 90 seconds.
Then there was 2008. “That’s the most excruciating to me,” Bourret said. “The ultimate heartbreak.”
Unranked Clemson led No. 3 North Carolina by 11 points with three minutes to go. Deliverance seemed at hand. Then it all fell apart. The Tar Heels rallied and won 103-93 in two overtimes, behind Tyler Hansbrough’s 39 points. It ran the streak to 0-53, and broke the NCAA record of Princeton over Brown.
“I remember I was doing the color for the Clemson network and Woody Durham was doing play-by-play for North Carolina and we were sitting maybe four seats away,” Bourret said. “When that game ended, I instinctively looked over at him and he instinctively looked at me because we had both seen so many games of the series, and we both just kind of shook our heads.”
K.C. Rivers scored 14 points for Clemson that night and said afterward, “It’s like having your favorite thing in your grip and losing it, and you can’t get it back.”
Added teammate Cliff Hammonds, after 31 points, “I don’t think there’s a curse.”
All evidence to the contrary.
Because of the expanded ACC, Clemson now goes to Chapel Hill only every other season, so as Bourret said, “After this game, it’ll be another 700-and-whatever days before we talk about it again.”
Or maybe they won’t have to talk about it all. One win. Just one would do it.
“It would mean a lot to the long-time Clemson fans that I know. That’s something they’ve always wanted to do. That and win the ACC Tournament. We’ve never won the ACC Tournament either,” Bourret said. “It would be a landmark accomplishment. That’d be something that would bring quite a crowd to welcome the team back at Littlejohn Coliseum.”
By the way, Tuesday is one day after the 92nd anniversary of the start of the streak. In an odd way, might the Tar Heels even feel a little pressure, not wanting to be the team to lose?
“I never talk about it because none of them have been involved,” Williams said of his team. “Guys in my locker room may have won one or two of those. It’s going to end someday. My whole line has always been, I don’t want it to be during my lifetime.”
And so, Tuesday’s choice in the Smith Center: History, or 0-59.