By Steven Bradley
CLEMSON — Devin Booker surpassed his age with his point total Thursday, but he would have needed to be much older for that feat to have done Clemson any good.
On his 22nd birthday, the senior big man scored a game-high 25 points and nabbed a game-high 11 rebounds, but the Tigers fell to North Carolina, 68-59, to drop below .500 for the first time this season at 13-14 overall and 5-10 in ACC play.
Even with the outstanding effort, the second-best scoring total of his career, Booker was in no mood to celebrate afterward.
“We needed this win, we didn’t get it, and it’s not a very good birthday,” he said.
After scoring just four points in the first half, due in part to some early foul trouble, Booker dominated the second half by scoring 21 points after halftime — more than any other player scored in the game — to help Clemson close a lead that was once 17 points back to single digits.
“He just took it upon himself to go do more in terms of offensive rebounding, really attacking,” Tigers head coach Brad Brownell said. “I don’t think we ran a lot more things for him. If you’re going to be a great player, the coaches on the sidelines can only do so many things for you … you’re going to have to go make plays.
“I thought he was relentless in the second half trying to put us on his back a little bit to help us get back in the game.”
Clemson dug itself a hole in the first half, as it struggled to cope with the Tar Heels’ rapid-fire pacing. The Tigers were able to weather the storm early and pulled even at 18-18 on a driving layup by Damarcus Harrison with 10:30 to go in the half.
But UNC closed the opening stanza on a 20-6 run and went into the locker room up 38-24 on a wide-open layup by James Michael McAdoo in the waning seconds.
“I did not think our overall intensity was terrific in the first half,” Brownell said. “We were not grinding defensively like we needed to. We were content with trading baskets. That’s not the way we’re going to win games. The drought in the first half was crucial, and that’s when North Carolina pulled away.”
Clemson opened the second half on a 6-2 mini-run and got back within 10 points on a jumper by Adonis Filer that made the score 40-30. The Tigers still trailed by 10 at 50-40 with 13:52 to go, but turned the ball over four times before they scored their next field goal 5:12 later, missing multiple opportunities to cut their deficit back to single digits.
“It was ugly basketball,” senior forward Milton Jennings said. “It was probably our worst game in the second half all year. We were playing with so much energy, but were just being careless on offense.”
The closest Clemson could get in the second half was within seven at 66-59 on an offensive putback by Booker, but by then only a minute remained in the contest.
Playing in the penultimate home game of their college careers, Booker and Jennings both recorded double-doubles, as Jennings finished with 12 points and 10 boards to go along with Booker’s game highs in both categories.
Afterward, both lamented that they had been unable to take advantage of likely their final opportunity to beat North Carolina.
“I wouldn’t just blame it on the younger guys, it was all of us as a team,” Booker said. “Maybe they just didn’t know how much this game meant to us, being our last time playing North Carolina. We really wanted to win, me and Milt, but we just couldn’t come away with it.”
Clemson will host Boston College on Tuesday and recognize Booker and Jennings on Senior Night for their final regular-season home game at Littlejohn.
“It hasn’t sunk in yet,” Booker said, “but by the time it gets here I don’t know what’s going to be going through my head. I’m just going to play that game like it’s my last — because it is.”