GREENSBORO, N.C. — Waiting for their ACC Tournament quarterfinal with Boston College to begin Friday, Clemson’s locker room shook with emotion.
Specifically, the emotion that 20,000 North Carolina fans watching their team rally for a heart-pounding comeback over Miami can produce.
“You could hear the crowd going,” said Clemson junior guard Tanner Smith. “The (ceiling) tiles were flailing as they went on their run.”
So the Tigers know what they’re getting into when they face off with the Tar Heels at 1 p.m. Saturday in the ACC semifinals. Technically, Greensboro Coliseum is a neutral site. Friday’s showing proved it’ll be anything but.
To make its third ACC Tournament final ever, Clemson must overcome the ACC champions and a largely partisan crowd.
“We’re excited to get another chance,” Smith said. “To play a team that’s playing really well right now. Everyone’s up for the challenge; we’ll have a good game plan going in and hopefully our defense can continue to keep us in games.”
Clemson has lost two hard-fought games to the Tar Heels this season. In Chapel Hill, the teams were tied at 63 with 7:46 left before UNC ended the game on a 12-2 run. In Clemson, the Tar Heels took a hard-fought 64-62 victory.
North Carolina has won eight straight and 13 of 14 since installing freshman Kendall Marshall as its starting point guard.
“If you look at those two games, you see we were in the games with Carolina,” Smith said. “But they’re playing so well, we can’t be like, ‘We were in the game with them a couple times.’ They’re Carolina. They’re going to come ready to go.”
Heels escape Hurricanes: When Tyler Zeller’s lay-up dropped as time expired early Friday afternoon, it gave North Carolina its only lead of the game – and a shocking 61-59 win over Miami.
With 7:46 left, the ninth-seeded Hurricanes led the top-seeded Tar Heels 55-39, and UNC looked as good as done.
But North Carolina stormed back, ending the game on a 22-4 run that featured more Miami turnovers (three) than baskets (one).
“We were as lucky as we could possibly be,” UNC coach Roy Williams said.
After Zeller’s hook tied the game at 59 with 43 seconds left, Miami got the ball and a chance to redeem itself. But after Frank Haith called a timeout to talk it over and set up a play, the Hurricanes crumbled.
With about 20 seconds left, Malcolm Grant passed to Adrian Thomas on the right wing, who promptly fumbled the ball out of bounds.
That gave the Heels a final chance. Marshall drove the right wing, and then dished to Zeller, who laid the ball in as time expired.
“It’s one of those things where people always make fun of me for not dunking,” Zeller said. “But it paid off on that possession. I had to shoot it as fast as possible. I knew as soon as I let it go that I had gotten it off in time, because I knew the buzzer had gone off after it left my hand.”
Zeller’s make gave a happy ending to a difficult day for Carolina, who struggled all afternoon before a largely partisan crowd. Williams has called the event “a cocktail party” in the past, and his team appeared to have a hangover from its regular season finale win over Duke, which clinched the regular season title.
At the 12:07 mark, down 15-8, Williams had seen enough.
Fed up with poor play from his front-liners, Williams yanked them and rolled in five end-of-the-bench walk-ons: Daniel Bolick, Van Hatchell, Stewart Cooper, Patrick Crouch and D.J. Johnston for two minutes. The group calls themselves “Blue Steel.”
They combined to miss a shot, commit a turnover and grab a rebound (Cooper) while getting a huge pop from the sellout Coliseum crowd.
Blue Steel inspired the starters; after halftime, UNC hit seven of 12 3-pointers and shot 55.6 percent from the field. Miami shot only 32.3 percent. And after committing 16 turnovers in the first half, UNC turned it over only twice in the final 20 minutes.
“I did check my pulse (before putting them in) and it was solid,” Williams said. “It worked to the extent that it challenged our guys and told them I wasn’t going to sit there. I love those guys (Blue Steel). Again, you can send messages, but if you send messages people have to receive it. Our guys received it… it just took longer to settle in, probably.”
“At the time I was really ticked off because you want to get in there and help your team out,” he said. “Coach told us what we were doing wrong in so many words I can’t say. We saw Blue Steel giving it their all so it inspired us. It took a while to get started but I think we came through in the end.”
No goggles: Clemson senior forward Jerai Grant sported a bloodshot left eye after taking a finger in it from Virginia Tech’s Jeff Allen in the regular season finale, and tried on sports goggles in practice, measuring their use for the tournament.
He went without them on Friday, scoring 12 points, grabbing five rebounds with four blocks.
“I was a little bit worried about it at first, but eventually I got more comfortable on the court,” Grant said of his eye. “ It bothered me a little bit but not enough to make me worry about the way I play.”