Strickland, North Carolina beat Clemson 68-59

The Associated Press

CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) -- Dexter Strickland tied his season high with 16 points and North Carolina reached the 20-win mark for the ninth straight season with a 68-59 victory over Clemson on Thursday night.

The Tar Heels (20-8, 10-5 Atlantic Coast Conference) won a season-high fourth straight in league play and took their 15th in the past 16 games with the Tigers (13-14, 5-10). Strickland led all five North Carolina starters in double figures. Reggie Bullock added 12 points and nine rebounds, while James Michael McAdoo and P.J. Hairston had 11 points each. Marcus Paige scored 10.

Devin Booker had 25 points and 11 rebounds to lead the Tigers, who lost their third straight and for the sixth time in the past seven games. Milton Jennings also had a double-double for Clemson with 12 points and 10 rebounds.

North Carolina saw its 17-point lead slip to seven in the final minute but held on.

There are few better bets than the Tar Heels getting 20 wins in a season. They've reached the milestone in 40 of the past 43 years and last missed the mark in coach Roy Williams' first season in 2003-04. Some thought this might've been another year when the Tar Heels would stub their toe after opening ACC play 0-2 with losses to Virginia and Miami.

North Carolina has rebounded strongly to win 10 of its past 13 league games and head a group tied for third in the chase for ACC tournament byes in two weeks.

The Tar Heels used an 18-6 run the final 10 minutes of the opening half to take control. They eventually grew the lead to 64-47 on Hairston's third 3-pointer with about five minutes left. Clemson took off on a 12-2 stretch and briefly gave the sold-out crowd something to cheer about to cut the lead to 66-59. But the Tigers couldn't get any closer.

These teams hadn't met at Littlejohn Coliseum in two seasons since 2011. While the Tigers fare better at home against the Tar Heels than at Chapel Hill - Clemson is a dreadful 0-56 when playing at North Carolina - they've lost four of the past five series games played here.

Things didn't improve before the game as Clemson lost one of its leading scorers at the afternoon shoot-around - forward K.J. McDaniels, second on the team at 10.7 points a game, sprained his ankle and did not play.

North Carolina came into this one seeking a couple of milestones. It hadn't won more than three straight ACC games all year and was looking for that 20th win.

And the Tar Heels got going quickly. Two 3-pointers by Paige and a long-range bucket by Bullock put them ahead 11-4 less than three minutes into the game. Then Clemson, the ACC's third stingiest defense, dug in and got back in it.

Consecutive baskets by Booker and Damarcus Harrison tied things at 18-all with 10:36 remaining in the period.

That's when North Carolina got hot from the outside. Leslie McDonald hit two 3-pointers and Hairston added a third as part of a 20-6 run to the break. The Tar Heels finished the half shooting 46.9 percent (15 of 32) from the field, most of their shots wide open after several crisp passes to find a free teammate.

What to Read Next