Clemson's moment came with about nine minutes left, when the Tigers had the ball and a 13-point lead on top-seeded North Carolina. The looks on the Tigers' faces made it clear they knew they had a chance to knock off the nation's second-ranked team in yesterday's ACC quarterfinals -- and a lot of time to think about it.
North Carolina's moment came seven minutes later, when Raymond Felton dribbled the ball far beyond the three-point line. Clemson's Vernon Hamilton was laying off him a bit, the shot clock was running down and someone from his bench was yelling, "Shoot it!"
North Carolina's Raymond Felton finds a hole in the defense en route to scoring 29 points and denying the Tigers a major upset. "He willed us back to victory," Sean May said of his teammate.
(Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)
No time to think. Felton simply shot, the ball went in, and North Carolina was on its way to an 88-81 victory at MCI Center.
Felton's long three-pointer from the right side with 1 minute 15 seconds left was more than a reminder of the advantages action carries over contemplation. It was the highlight of a stirring comeback Felton led for the Tar Heels, one that set up a semifinal meeting with Georgia Tech today. It gave North Carolina (27-3) its first lead since late in the first half and helped the Tar Heels avoid what would have been their second loss to Clemson in 14 ACC tournament meetings.
"I heard somebody saying, 'Shoot, shoot,' " Felton said. "I don't know if it was Coach or some of the players."
Felton finished with 29 points and seven rebounds -- including two in the frantic final minutes -- and made 7 of 8 free throws in the final 37 seconds to seal the victory.
When Clemson's Sharrod Ford made a free throw with 9:30 left, the ninth-seeded Tigers led 71-58 and seemed to be on the verge of winning two ACC tournament games in the same season for just the second time, and the first time since 1962. But North Carolina put together a 23-8 run, retaking the lead on Felton's three-pointer.
The run started after North Carolina Coach Roy Williams put an unorthodox lineup of Reyshawn Terry, Byron Sanders, Melvin Scott, Jawad Williams and Rashad McCants on the floor for a short stretch. As the coach talked to key contributors such as Felton and Sean May on the bench, Williams and Scott made steals that helped spark the rally.
Felton did his part before and after that, consistently blowing past Clemson defenders to create shots for himself and others inside.
"He willed us," May said of Felton. "He willed us back to victory. A lot of guys didn't have it today, the ball wasn't falling."
The 6-foot-9 May admitted he was one of the Tar Heels who struggled, scoring 13 points on 3-of-10 shooting and grabbing just six rebounds. Despite a disadvantage in size, Clemson (16-15) found ways to grab offensive rebounds and block shots, rallying to take the lead late in the first half and building it throughout the first 11 minutes of the second.
Shawan Robinson finished with a team-high 17 points, Hamilton had 16 and Ford 15 for Clemson. Ford chipped in with eight rebounds, and Akin Akingbala had two blocked shots, one of five players who swatted a Tar Heel shot in the game.
Clemson used a 13-2 run in the final 3:44 of the first half to take a 43-40 halftime lead, and kept it going at the beginning of the second half, opening with a 15-9 run. They seemed most vulnerable, however, after taking their 13-point lead.
"We were probably saying to ourselves, 'We got it,' " Ford said. "We just gotta take care of the little things, make free throws, take care of the ball. . . . I think some of those things, we let slip."