CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Before Clemson's first game in the ACC tournament, coach Oliver Purnell brought a yellow construction workers' hard hat into the locker room.
The players put it on -- along with a goofy smile -- and passed it around. It has since become a part of their pregame routine.
"We've been talking about defense the whole semester, but we didn't have anything to symbolize it," said freshman guard Demontez Stitt. "In order to symbolize it, he wanted us to put on our hard hats and go to work."
The Tigers listened and, in turn, deconstructed a few North Carolina traditions -- starting with Duke.
The Blue Devils had beaten the Tigers 22 straight times, but that streak ended Saturday afternoon with Clemson's 78-74 win in the ACC semifinals.
And the Tigers managed to do in the second semifinal what Virginia Tech came amazingly close to doing in the first semifinal -- knocking off one of the Carolina favorites right here in North Carolina, where the color orange sticks out like a Pinto at a Porsche dealership. Of the 110 possible berths in the ACC tournament final, 84 have gone to in-state teams. Earlier, North Carolina had continued that trend of dominance by holding off the Hokies and making the finals on a 68-66 win on Tyler Hansbrough's last-second shot.
All season long, this league has been classified as Duke, Carolina and everybody else. The Tar Heels won the regular-season championship, and Duke followed. The two split their two matchups in the regular season. The assumption was they would meet for a third time Sunday. Instead, Clemson will be the final hurdle on top-ranked North Carolina's drive for a No. 1 seed in the East region.
Virginia Tech and Clemson both proved the league goes a little deeper than that. But the question is how much deeper the NCAA tournament selection committee will see it.
"We whup up on the Big Ten every single year in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, and they're talking about maybe a fifth team in the league?" Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg said after his team's loss. "It's absolutely absurd. It's ludicrous."
Of the four teams still playing in Charlotte Bobcats Arena on Saturday afternoon, only the Hokies were playing for an NCAA tournament bid.
"Anyone who watched that game that knows anything about basketball, if you don't think this team is one of the top 65 teams in the country, you're certifiably insane," Greenberg said.
For 39 minutes and 59 seconds, Greenberg said, his team controlled UNC -- had the Tar Heels right where he wanted them (about 60 points). But with .8 seconds left on the clock, the ACC Player of the Year beat the ACC Coach of the Year.
Hansbrough easily sank a 12-foot jumper for the win and his first game-winning shot since he was in high school. Whether the Hokies' hopes at an NCAA tournament bid were sunk with it remains to be seen. Had fourth-seeded Virginia Tech won and made the finals -- a surprising accomplishment for a team picked by the media to finish 10th in the league -- no doubt the Hokies would have been dancing.
But now, Virginia Tech will be sweating Selection Sunday, although Greenberg made it clear he didn't think there should be any question about his team's merit.
How much farther Clemson extends this season's success -- a 24-win season, the first ACC final berth since 1962 and a likely Dance berth for the first time in a decade -- will be determined in large part by whether it can make its free throws, which has been a glaring problem during Purnell's tenure. Last year, Clemson shot 57.8 percent, the worst team percentage in ACC history. This year, the Tigers improved to 62.3 percent, but that was still the worst in the league.
Against Duke, Clemson made them when it counted.
The Tigers made 13 of 17 free throws in the second half, and James Mays was 6-for-6 from the free-throw line, the most he has made all season.
"We've been working on it each and every day, and we just knew that if we stepped to the line with confidence, they're going to drop," Cliff Hammonds said.
They finally did, helping Clemson to that first ACC championship berth in decades.
The Tigers have excelled with their pressure defense, by forcing teams to adjust to their high-energy tempo. Clemson doesn't have a true center, but its big men can defend guards, which is key against a team such as Duke. The Blue Devils, the best 3-point shooting team in the league, were held to six made 3s and turned the ball over 16 times.
"They do a great job of playing the whole court on a press," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "Sometimes, a team presses and doesn't play the whole court, and you can beat that. They really run back and make plays as they are coming back. A few of our turnovers were turnovers where we were passing to somebody we didn't see. You expected your teammate to be there, and instead it was one of them. Clemson did such a great job of retreating back while still attacking. They have gotten really good at it."
Hammonds, a senior, said the Tigers play like that because they are "trying to prove something."
"We're trying to prove that we can play with anybody in the country," he said. "We can beat anybody in the country."
The state of North Carolina included.
Heather Dinich is a college football and basketball writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Heather at firstname.lastname@example.org.