I managed to miss most of the Clemson-North Carolina basketball game on TV last night and it’s just as well. The Tar Heels’ 94-70 victory added another chapter of misery to the Tigers’ basketball history at Chapel Hill.
If you’re a college basketball fan at all, you’re aware that Clemson’s record of futility in away games against UNC is unsurpassed. Last night’s Tar Heel victory made it 54 straight, covering every single Clemson-UNC game ever played at Woollen Gym, Carmichael Auditorium and now the Dean Smith Center. It’s the longest streak of home court domination by one team over another in NCAA Division I history – Brown at Princeton and Washington State at UCLA fell by the wayside a few years ago.
A former student of mine left me a commiserating note on my Facebook page after the game. The young lady, a fan of Clemson and a native of Massachusetts, wondered if I was going to blog about the game and said, “And I thought being a Boston fan was tough stuff!”
I thought that that was a good comparison. To follow Clemson basketball, as I have for almost 40 years, is to know the pain that, say, fans of the Boston Red Sox felt for so long in that 86-year drought between World Series championships.
To be fair, the Tigers have had their moments of success on the court. Most of them have come in the last three decades or so, including eight NCAA tournament appearances. Clemson was actually one win away from the Final Four in 1980, losing to UCLA in the Elite Eight. And the Tigers advanced to the Sweet 16 in 1990 and 1997.
Current coach Oliver Purnell has brought the Tigers back to respectability in the five-plus seasons he’s coached the team, starting with an appearance in the NIT finals in 2007. Last season, Clemson made its first appearance in the ACC tournament championship game in 46 years and earned its first NCAA tournament bid in a decade.
But the one mountain they can’t seem to climb is colored heavenly blue. After last night’s victory, UNC now owns a 122-19 all-time record against Clemson. Almost all the Tigers’ wins have come at Clemson, with one or two in “neutral court” games in Charlotte and exactly one in the ACC Tournament.
The Tar Heels have won the last 10 meetings. That includes three close games last year that I think were the best challenges the Tar Heels got from an opponent that they didn’t end up losing to. The one at Chapel Hill was particularly heartbreaking, as the Tigers extended the home team to two overtimes before falling, 103-93.
More of them have ended up like last night’s game, in which Clemson was competitive for about a half, then let the game get away from them. Of course, lots of teams come to Chapel Hill and lose, but the Tigers are the ones who have perfected it over time.
I’ve always thought that Clemson lost its best chance to break the string during the 2001-2002 season, remembered fondly by Tar Heel-haters everywhere as the year that Carolina had an 8-20 record. Two of those wins were against – you guessed it, Clemson.
I particularly remember the game at Chapel Hill, in which the Tar Heels played with a ferocity that teams usually save for a national championship game. (They should have played half as well against Kansas in last year’s Final Four.)
I was talking with a friend at church about it the day after the game, and it occurred to me that the North Carolina team played that game as if someone were trying to take away the last shred of its dignity. The rest of the ACC had taken the rest of it away from them, but by golly, they could still beat Clemson at home.
I could go on, but it’s just too painful. Maybe next year.