Coby White had 28 points behind six 3-pointers, and the Tar Heels (24-5) maintained a share of first place in the Atlantic Coast Conference, tied with No. 2 Virginia at 14-2 with a week left in the regular season. They also survived a tight finish where the Tigers cut a seven-point lead to two. But Shelton Mitchell lost the ball driving into two North Carolina defenders in the final seconds.
Williams wasn’t there to see it. He sustained an episode of vertigo with a minute left before halftime, falling in front of his team’s bench and getting led into the locker room. He did not return for the final 20 minutes.
The Tar Heels rallied in a roller-coaster second half — they led by nine, fell behind 54-48 before finally taking control — for their fifth straight win and 12th in their past 13 games.
Cameron Johnson had 19 points with six 3s of his own, and Luke Maye had 13 points and 10 rebounds.
No surprise that it was White, Maye and Johnson front and center in North Carolina’s comeback.
With the Tar Heels trailing, Maye hit a 3-pointer and followed with a three-point play to put them back in front. Moments later, White hit his sixth 3. White, a 6-foot-5 freshman, and Maye added short jumpers, and Johnson added his fifth 3-pointer for a 70-63 lead.
The Tigers closed to 80-79 on Shelton Mitchell’s foul shots with 10.3 seconds left.
After Kenny Williams hit a foul shot, Mitchell drove toward the basket was met by two defenders and could not get a shot off.
Marquise Reed led Clemson with 24 points, and Elijah Thomas had 14 points and 11 rebounds. The Tigers played without starter David Skara, who had an upper body injury in a win at Pitt this past Wednesday night.
North Carolina moved in front over the final eight minutes of the opening half with a 20-10 run helped by the 3-point shooting of White and Johnson.
White’s 3-pointer — his fifth of the half — with 1:06 left put the Tar Heels up 35-33. That was also when Williams went down, the team saying he turned his head quickly and experienced an episode of vertigo, something he’s had happen before during games.
Johnson, the ACC’s leader in 3-point shooting percentage, capped things with his second 3-pointer of the run to put North Carolina up 39-35 at the break.
North Carolina’s Williams, 68, has had vertigo before in games, leaving a win over Boston College three years ago. Steve Robinson, the former Florida State coach and now Tar Heel assistant, took over for Williams.
North Carolina: The Tar Heels struggled at times with Clemson’s defense, which ranks third in the ACC in limiting points. But North Carolina’s outside shooting — it finished with 13 3s — helped pull this one out.
Clemson: The Tigers were seeking a late-season signature win to solidify their NCAA Tournament chances. But it was another heart-breaking close call for a club that’s lost five ACC games by eight points or less.
North Carolina goes to Boston College on Tuesday night.
Clemson plays at Notre Dame on Wednesday night.
By PETE IACOBELLI , Associated Press