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March 16, 2008

North Carolina claims 17th ACC tourney title

MORE: Rivals.com Daily Bubble Watch | Drive for 65: Forecasting the Field | Play Tourney Pick'em

CHARLOTTE, N.C. North Carolina couldn't have asked for a better NCAA Tournament dress rehearsal than this.

One day after Tyler Hansbrough sank a fadeaway jumper in the final second to beat Virginia Tech, Wayne Ellington scored 24 points Sunday as top-ranked North Carolina defeated Clemson 86-81 in the ACC tourney final at Charlotte Bobcats Arena. The victory gave the Tar Heels their 17th ACC tournament crown and cemented their status as a favorite to win the national title.

"These teams played really tough and were really aggressive, and we did well," said Hansbrough, named the tournament's most valuable player after collecting 18 points and 11 rebounds Sunday. "That's the type of atmosphere we're going to face in the tournament."

K.C. Rivers recorded 28 points, eight rebounds and six steals for Clemson, which was making its first appearance in the championship game since 1962. Trevor Booker added 12 points, six rebounds and six blocks for the Tigers (24-9).

None of that was enough against a UNC team that has no apparent weakness. This team has that same championship look of the 2005 squad that gave the Tar Heels their most recent national title.

"The similarity for both teams is the effort and hard work," said North Carolina guard Quentin Thomas, a member of that '05 team. "We've gone through so much adversity this year with injuries and aches and pains throughout the team, but we stuck together and came together as a unit. I think that shows a lot of character for this team and will definitely help us in the tournament."

This tournament showcased why North Carolina (32-2) has a good chance of winning its next tournament.

Nobody beats North Carolina on the boards. North Carolina leads the nation in rebounding margin and hasn't been outrebounded in an ACC game all season. The Tar Heels beat Clemson 49-34 on the glass Sunday and outscored the Tigers 48-36 in the paint.

North Carolina has perhaps the best player in the nation. When the Heels needed Hansbrough to carry them, that's exactly what he did. UNC wouldn't have advanced to the final without his 26-point, nine-rebound performance against Virginia Tech.

Ellington gives Hansbrough a perfect complement. Ellington's ability to shoot from the outside and beat Clemson's pressure defense haunted the Tigers all day long. He shot 10-of-13 Sunday and seemed to make a basket whenever Clemson mounted a challenge.

Point guard Ty Lawson is approaching full strength. Lawson hasn't regained all the speed he showed before missing six games with a sprained left ankle, but he looked plenty fast enough while making two layups in the second half. Lawson also showed his toughness by pulling down two critical rebounds in the final minute of the game.

"I think he's getting closer, but he's got to get a lot better for us to reach the dreams that we have," North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. "He doesn't feel that comfortable with it. During one timeout, I said, 'I guarantee you you're going to make your next basket. You've got to be aggressive. Don't feel sorry for yourself. You've got to be aggressive.'

"He turned around, and I said, 'Hey, I've coached a lot of games. I know what I'm talking about.' The next play was his first layup."

The Tar Heels know how to handle pressure. Clemson's full-court pressure defense had harassed Boston College and Duke the past two days, but UNC exploited the Tigers' aggressive approach. The Tar Heels committed 20 turnovers, but they also scored 34 fast-break points by beating the press and getting easy baskets. Carolina took the lead for good by making 15 of its first 20 shots in the second half.

"Once the opposing team scores, they are coming right behind you," Rivers said. "When you're jogging back and not paying attention, Lawson and Thomas were coming right behind us. We weren't picking them up well in transition, so it was hurting us down the stretch."

Clemson was facing an entirely different kind of pressure. While North Carolina was accustomed to the championship-game environment, the Tigers were seeking their first tournament title in school history.

UNC was playing its 29th ACC final in the past 55 years. Clemson had been here just once before, when it lost 77-66 to Wake Forest in 1962. In fact, that '62 season represented the only time before this week that Clemson had won more than one tournament game. Clemson entered the week with a tournament record of 14-54 including an 0-16 mark against top-seeded teams while UNC was 80-37.

Instead of shrinking on the big stage, Clemson initially savored the opportunity to make history. The Tigers led 39-38 at halftime behind big efforts from Rivers and Booker. But the Tigers continually missed shots from short range in the second half and suffered a relapse of their season-long tendency to miss free throws. After making their foul shots down the stretch in a semifinal upset of Duke, Clemson was 4-of-11 from the line in the final six minutes Sunday.

"We probably played well enough to win against maybe most teams in the country," Clemson coach Oliver Purnell said. "But we played a great one today, and we needed to play great. And we didn't play great because we didn't shoot it well."

Instead of witnessing ACC history, the partisan North Carolina crowd instead got to see the familiar scene of the Tar Heels celebrating another conference title.

"This is a good feeling, but we feel this is not enough," Thomas said. "We want to achieve one more goal, and that's a national championship."

They're off to a great start.

Video Highlights: North Carolina 86, Clemson 81

MORE: Rivals.com Daily Bubble Watch | Drive for 65: Forecasting the Field | Play Tourney Pick'em

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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