ATLANTA (AP)—North Carolina usually does its best work at the offensive end.
This time, it was a defensive play that kept the top-ranked Tar Heels perfect.
With Georgia Tech poised to pull off a monumental upset, Tyler Hansbrough made a game-saving block in the closing seconds and the Tar Heels escaped with an 83-82 victory over the pesky Yellow Jackets on Wednesday night.
Hansbrough scored 27 points, bullying inside for shots and drawing one foul after another, but he saved his biggest play for the end—getting a hand on Zack Peacock’s shot that could have won it for the Yellow Jackets.
“Tyler was really something else,” Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said.
Danny Green put North Carolina (18-0, 3-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) ahead by making one of two free throws with 22 seconds remaining.
Georgia Tech (7-9, 0-3) had a chance—a couple of them, in fact. Peacock retrieved the loose ball after Hansbrough’s block and got off another shot with 3 seconds to go. It rimmed out, allowing North Carolina to escape.
Peacock insisted that someone hit his hand on the first shot, but he made no excuses about the second attempt.
“It was the cleanest shot you’ll ever get in a basketball game,” he moaned. “Next time, it’s going in.”
Hansbrough finished 7-of-14 from the field and kept getting to the foul line, where he had more attempts (15) than Georgia Tech’s entire team (10). The burly, 6-foot-9 junior made 13 free throws, and North Carolina needed every one of them.
“My face really got beat up,” said Hansbrough, who also had 11 rebounds. “It was really, really rough.”
North Carolina is off to its best start since the 1985-86 team began the season with 21 straight wins. Another encouraging sign for the Tar Heels: This is their first 3-0 start in the conference since 2004-05, and that team went on to claim the NCAA championship.
This season, they have won all but four of their games with double-digit blowouts. North Carolina came into Atlanta averaging 92.2 points and winning by an average margin of 22.1.
With snow covering the ground outside after a rare winter storm in Georgia, the Yellow Jackets almost pulled off an even bigger surprise. They put together an 11-2 run for their biggest lead of the game, 63-56.
Anthony Morrow hit a 3-pointer falling down and Peacock completed the spurt with a basket on the inside.
In the unaccustomed role of playing from behind, North Carolina responded. The Tar Heels worked hard for second chances and pulled even at 70 on Ty Lawson’s three-point play with 8:52 remaining.
But the Yellow Jackets kept matching North Carolina shot for shot. D’Andre Bell hit a jumper to reclaim the lead for the home team. Lawson scored on a fast-break drive to make it 72-all. Georgia Tech took off the other way for Peacock’s dunk.
It was close to the end. Jeremis Smith hit two free throws with 1:13 remaining to make it 82-82, and Georgia Tech squandered a chance to go ahead when Morrow missed a jumper from the corner with the shot clock running down.
Green was fouled by Peacock on the rebound, and walked to the other end of the court to shoot two. Only one went in, but that was enough to give the Tar Heels another victory.
“I’d rather have the winning points than the winning point,” Green quipped.
Smith led the Yellow Jackets with 15 points, Peacock had 14 and Morrow added 13. Freshman Gani Lawal also had 13 but fouled out with more than 5 minutes remaining.
Georgia Tech scored three more baskets than the mighty Tar Heels, including eight 3-pointers, but couldn’t overcome their 21-of-26 showing at the foul line. The Yellow Jackets were just 8-of-10.
Snapping a four-game losing streak against Georgia Tech in Atlanta, North Carolina got 13 points from Lawson and 10 from Green.
“We were lucky in a way,” Hansbrough said. “We didn’t make our shots at the end of the game.”
Georgia Tech is the only team in the ACC with a losing record overall and is ranked last in the league in points allowed, giving up 73.1 per game—not exactly the sort of team that figured to match up well against the run-and-gun Tar Heels.
Indeed, North Carolina appeared to be pulling away late in the first half, stretching its lead to 46-38 on Lawson’s layup off a steal by Green.
But the Yellow Jackets closed with a flourish, led by freshman Maurice Miller. He scored his team’s final seven points before the break, including a buzzer-beating jumper from just inside the arc that sent him hopping off the court and left Georgia Tech trailing just 48-46.
When the final buzzer sounded, North Carolina was able to celebrate.
Or at least breathe a sigh of relief.
“It never felt very solid in our hands,” guard Marcus Ginyard said. “They fought us to the last second.”