College Basketball: Clemson, UNC hope to rebound tonight

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 24, 2007

By Pete Iacobelli

Associated Press

CLEMSON, S.C. — Even though Clemson’s perfect streak is over, the enthusiasm for the program is still there.

Clemson students set up 145 tents outside the Littlejohn Coliseum ticket office Monday night to get seats for tonight’s matchup between the

19th-ranked Tigers and No. 4 North Carolina.

“There’s a lot of excitement right now,” Tigers coach Oliver Purnell said.

And there could’ve been so much more had both teams not lost over the weekend.

The Tar Heels (15-2, 2-1 ACC) were ranked No. 1 before they fell at Virginia Tech on Saturday. A short time earlier, Clemson’s distinction as the nation’s last unbeaten in Division I came to an end with its 92-87 loss at Maryland.

Purnell figures North Carolina will be as determined to put the Virginia Tech loss behind them as the Tigers will be to start a new streak.

“I expect they’ll be pretty fired up,” Purnell said.

This season has already generated a lot of excitement. While the Tigers had steady improvement over Purnell’s four seasons, nothing has compared to this stretch. The team’s 17-0 start matched the best in school history, established by the 1986-87 team led by NBA standout Horace Grant.

North Carolina coach Roy Williams has followed Purnell’s progress, particularly after Williams came to the ACC four seasons ago to take over the Tar Heels. He became good friends with Purnell when the two were assistants for the 2004 U.S. Olympic team.

“I like Oliver so much and I try to keep up with his club,” Williams said.

This year Williams has seen a versatility the Tigers have rarely had in the past. Senior Vernon Hamilton and junior Cliff Hammonds have steadied the backcourt, while freshman star Trevor Booker has joined junior James Mays — neither who were around last ACC season — to provide athleticism up front.

Mays missed the conference season a year ago because he was academically ineligible.

“Booker and Mays give them something they were lacking last year,” Williams said. “Now, you give them those two guys up front and it really makes them a strong, strong bunch.”

North Carolina has been strong most of the season. It carried a 12-game win streak into Virginia Tech, but fell behind by as many as 23 points until a late rally cut the final margin to 94-88.

Williams was proud of his team’s fight in the last game, but didn’t want his players to lose sight of how soundly they were defeated.

“We didn’t play very well,” he said. “They outplayed up, outcoached us and it kind of brought us back to reality.”

Usually, though, the Tar Heels find a way to recover against Clemson.

North Carolina is 9-1 against the Tigers when both teams are ranked. Williams is 5-1 against them, the only loss coming in his first season at Littlejohn Coliseum, where the two clubs meet Wednesday.

Williams thinks his club, despite young faces like freshmen Brandon Wright and Wayne Ellington, has shown the character and maturity to handle adverse situations. “I think they’ll respond well,” he said.

Clemson’s fans expect their Tigers to bounce back, too. All student tickets were picked up within hours of the ticket office opening Tuesday and Littlejohn is sold-out for the matchup.

Just a note: The school said the 145 tents set up were four more than the last time there was this much on-campus excitement over Tiger basketball, when No. 2 Clemson faced fourth-ranked Wake Forest and its star Tim Duncan in January 1997.

Purnell was asked if his team felt relief the undefeated season was over.

“I don’t think so,” the coach said. “I think they’re disappointed they didn’t get that win, disappointed the streak’s not still going. Now, it’s important we channel that disappointment into work.”