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February 18, 2012The Streak lives on, and so does all the pre-game talk about it.
Clemson has played UNC in Chapel Hill 55 times and lost them all. A lifetime of oh-for. It's an amazing number when one studies it for a moment.
Naturally, Coach Roy Williams downplays the whole matter. This year is all the counts, he says. His players do not even know most of the Tigers' former players.
"I never talk about it," Williams said. "It is a non-factor. It has nothing to do with this team."
Of course, how could anyone honestly blame Williams for taking this stance? He has nothing to gain by addressing the streak in public. The streak is a source of humiliation for Clemson (13-12, 5-6 in the ACC).
So, naturally, Tigers coach Brad Brownell waves the back of his hand at it as well.
"That's not what we talk about with our players," Brownell said. "We talk about the strengths and weaknesses of North Carolina and what we have to do to win the game."
Thankfully, Carolina sophomore Harrison Barnes did not feel the constraints of the coaches. Barnes addressed the situation realistically.
"When you beat a team 55 times, you definitely have to have a great awareness going into that game," Barnes said. "Obviously, you have to realize what a win is going to mean to them. You have to come out on point. You know they are going to come here ready to play."
Just as the streak carries a stigma of shame for the Tigers, it bears a bit of a burden for each Carolina (22-4, 9-2) club now. No one wearing a Tar Heel uniform wants to be the ones to etch their name in the records as the first to lose to Clemson in Chapel Hill.
During the nightmare 8-20 season under former Coach Matt Doherty, the sense of relief on the faces of the players and Doherty was clearly evident in a year in which Carolina's other streaks of pride fell by the wayside.
The games between these two do not always make sense, either. Doherty's team had an easier time winning than the eventual Final Four team in 2008, which needed a spectacular play from national player of the year Tyler Hansbrough and double overtime to hold off Clemson at the Smith Center in 2008.
The true importance of this game, however, is not the streak. Keeping pace for first place in the ACC's regular-season standings is.
UNC is tied with Duke and Florida State for first place at the moment. If the Tar Heels want to earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, the only loss they can afford the rest of the way until those brackets are announced would probably be the ACC Tournament title game.
Given the greater number of strong teams in the country, even that may not be enough to get a top seed. But losing is a sure way to ensure one doesn't.
Perhaps what is equally important, or even more so for the long run, is that Carolina continues to build on the painful lessons learned in losses at Florida State and against Duke at the Smith Center.
This team is beginning to resemble last year's in its resolution and toughness. A year ago, the Tar Heels came back from 10 points or more in the second half of five ACC games to win.
So far, this team has overcome a deficit of eight points or more in three of its last four road games.
"I do see the similarities in our toughness in that the game is not over with yet [when behind], not feeling sorry for ourselves," Williams said. "That has a direct relationship to you coming back or not coming back.
"Our kids have continued to try to do the right thing, to be tough enough, to be willing to make a play, to working a little bit harder on the defensive end, to box out a little bit better, to run a little bit more."
Today they will need to do all those things to ensure one of sports more unique streaks remains alive.