The Untouchables is a 10-part series spotlighting college basketball's most unbreakable records. Up first is No. 10: North Carolina's unparalleled 56-game home winning streak against Clemson.
Eighty-two years into one of the most unfathomable streaks in college basketball history, the school that had never beaten North Carolina on the road was on the verge of finally breaking its Chapel Hill hex.
A trickle of blue-clad fans headed toward the exits. The rest sat in their seats in stunned silence. It was bleak enough for the home team that even North Carolina's players began pondering the sobering possibility of losing to Clemson in Chapel Hill for the first time in 53 games.
"I know for sure that thought passed through my mind," starting forward Marcus Ginyard said. "I was like, 'Wow, we're not going to win this game. We're going to be the ones to let this streak go.'"
The idea the streak could end on their watch horrified Ginyard and his teammates because they felt like they were letting generations of former Tar Heels down.
In the time since North Carolina's first home victory over Clemson in 1926, the U.S. has endured the Great Depression, put men on the moon and survived the disco and hair metal crazes without the Tigers winning in Chapel Hill. Along the way, the Tar Heels have outclassed the Tigers in every way imaginable, beating them narrowly (61-60 in 1974), soundly (85-48 in 1953), at a breakneck pace (100-86 in 1989) and at a crawl (24-23 in 1936).
It has gotten to the point where Clemson's woes in Chapel Hill have become more law of nature than losing streak. Among Division I teams, only Brown has lost more than 50 consecutive times on the road against the same opponent, a 52-game streak at Princeton that began in 1929 and ended in 2002.
"It's surprising to say the least that the streak is still alive," said former North Carolina center Eric Montross, now the radio analyst for Tar Heels games. "It has been dissected from every which way to try to figure out how it continues, but I think an anomaly is a great way to describe it. I don't know how it has lasted as long as it has. It doesn't seem like something like this can happen in this day and age, and yet it has."
What's most discouraging for Clemson is the results don't change whether North Carolina is formidable or vulnerable.
Matt Doherty, the short-lived Tar Heels coach who cratered the program in the early 2000s, still managed to defeat Clemson three times in Chapel Hill during his tenure. Even during Doherty's catastrophic 8-20 meltdown in 2002, North Carolina somehow walloped Clemson at home by 18 points.
Sometimes it seems like Clemson is beaten before it even steps on the Dean Smith Center floor, but former Tigers center Tom Wideman insists fans and media oversell the streak's impact. It's easy for Clemson players to block out the program's Chapel Hill futility as tipoff approaches, Wideman says, because they've only been personally involved in three or four of the losses at most.
"The guys who actually play in the game, it doesn't weigh on them at all," said Wideman, who started more than 100 games for Clemson from 1995 to 1999. "Everybody thinks there's so much pressure on the Clemson players. It's just not the case. By my senior year, I may have thought to myself, 'I'd really like to be on the first team that won here,' but that's about it."
No Clemson team has ever been closer to celebrating a win in Chapel Hill than the 2008 Tigers were after Raleigh native James Mays threw down a transition dunk to extend the lead to 79-68 with 3:15 remaining. Senior guard Cliff Hammonds admits he thought his team was in firm control, especially with North Carolina guards Ty Lawson and Bobby Frasor sidelined with injuries and no other Tar Heel besides Tyler Hansbrough having much success.
"We were running with them, we were hitting shots and we weren't making mistakes," Hammonds said. "At that point and time, I personally felt like we were going to win the game."
Maybe Hammonds would have been right if the opponent were Duke or Maryland or Virginia Tech, but it's never so simple against North Carolina. That's the only explanation for a program that had already perfected the art of losing in Chapel Hill somehow breaking news ground, coughing up a double-digit lead in stunning fashion.
Hansbrough gave North Carolina a glimmer of life, scoring a pair of transition baskets set up by Clemson turnovers and taking a key charge. Danny Green followed that with two crucial 3-pointers that trimmed the Clemson lead to two despite a jumper from Hammonds in between.
It was at that point that senior guard Quentin Thomas, a career reserve pressed into starter's duty by the injuries to Lawson and Frasor, scored one of the biggest baskets of his life. Unable to get the ball to Hansbrough or Wayne Ellington, Thomas instead crossed over his unsuspecting defender, drove to the rim and laid the ball high off the backboard, tying the score with 26 seconds left and paving the way for a 103-93 double overtime victory.
"Clemson was and is a very good team and a very good program," Thomas said. "To be down the entire game, to be dealing with so much adversity and to still keep the streak alive, that was a lot of fun for me."
For players in both locker rooms that day, the details of that game are still vivid four years later.
Ginyard is proud of the comeback and relieved it wasn't his team that allowed the streak to end. Hammonds is disappointed by the loss yet confident another Clemson team will soon do what his could not.
Even though he has spent the past few years playing professionally in Europe, Hammonds has made a point to stay up until the wee hours of the morning to watch each of Clemson's games in Chapel Hill. The Tigers have lost all three handily to run the streak to 56, but Hammonds remains undeterred.
"I want to see it when it happens," Hammonds said. "The group of guys who go in there and end the streak, they're going to get their just due for being that team. Being that I'm a big supporter of the program, I want to be there to congratulate those guys. I want to be able to call them up and say, 'You guys did a good job.'"
Someday Hammonds will get to make that call. Until then, however, the King Kong-sized monkey on Clemson's back will only continue to grow larger.
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