WASHINGTON (Ticker) -- North Carolina woke up in time to avoid one of the biggest upsets in Atlantic Coast Conference tournament history.
Raymond Felton scored a career-high 29 points, including a crucial 3-pointer late, as the second-ranked Tar Heels rallied from a 13-point deficit over the final nine minutes to defeat Clemson, 88-81, in a quarterfinal game.
Felton took matters into his own hands, scoring North Carolina's final 10 points and 24 in the second half.
"We were down nine to Duke with two minutes to go and we came back to win that one," said Felton, referring to Sunday's regular-season finale. "We knew we could come back from 13 with minutes to go."
"Raymond has led us all year," Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said. "He took control of the game and carried us to the win."
But even with Rashad McCants back in the lineup, North Carolina appeared sluggish for 30 minutes, missing nine straight shots during one stretch in the second half.
Clemson (16-15), which upset Maryland in the first round Thursday, took a 71-58 lead on Sharrod Ford's free throw with 9:18 left.
But the Tar Heels (27-3) seemed to flip a switch, turned up their intensity and started scoring in transition as the Tigers began committing turnovers. During one stretch, Clemson turned the ball over on three straight possessions.
"We played well for 37 minutes and I'm disappointed we didn't close the deal," Clemson coach Oliver Purnell said. "We deserve some respect as a team that we haven't been getting."
Felton's 3-pointer with 1:19 remaining gave the Tar Heels the lead for good at 81-79.
On the other end, Shawan Robinson threw up an airball for the Tigers, and Felton added a pair from the line to make it 83-79 with 36 seconds remaining. Robinson scored 17 points for Clemson but was held to just two in the second half.
McCants, who missed four games with an intestinal disorder, and Jawad Williams scored 13 points apiece for the Tar Heels.
"We don't win that game against Duke, we don't win this one," Jawad Williams said. "We know we can come back and beat people."
But the Tar Heels appeared to take the Tigers lightly. Clemson finished the first half with a 13-2 run, turning an eight-point deficit into a 43-40 halftime lead, and outplayed North Carolina for most of the second half.
With time starting to run out, Roy Williams replaced all five players on the court with eight minutes left, substituting McCants, Reyshawn Terry, Byron Sanders, Marvin Williams and Melvin Scott. It turned out to be the spark the Tar Heels needed.
"I put in a new five and that gave us new life," coach Williams said. "They picked it up for us and then when Raymond came back in, he took over."
Jawad Williams' steal and three-point play played pulled North Carolina within 71-61 with 7:44 remaining and started the comeback.
"We couldn't hold them off in the last three minutes," Ford said. "We couldn't answer that last run."
North Carolina overcame 39 percent shooting (21-of-54) by forcing 19 turnovers and feasting at the foul line. The Tar Heels made 37-of-47 free throws, while Clemson was 20-of-29.