ATLANTA (AP)—Tyler Hansbrough pumped his fists and sprinted off the court after another close call against Virginia Tech. Only one problem—he was heading toward the wrong tunnel.
That was about the only thing that didn’t go his way Friday.
Hansbrough scored 28 points and made a disputed defensive stop in the final seconds as No. 1 North Carolina avoided an upset at the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, holding off Virginia Tech 79-76 on Friday.
After A.D. Vassallo missed a 3-pointer that would have forced overtime, Hansbrough sprinted toward the tunnel near the North Carolina bench. He ran into a group of cheerleaders, who steered him toward the proper Georgia Dome exit.
“Yeah, everybody’s laughing about that,” Hansbrough said. “I knew it was the wrong tunnel, but I came back out, I saw some friends in the front row laughing about it. Everybody (on the team) was pointing and laughing. I said, ‘OK, whatever.”’
The Tar Heels won without ACC player of the year Ty Lawson, who sat out the game with an injured toe. But Hansbrough made sure his team avoided the upset bug that already has claimed four of the nation’s top 11 teams.
No. 2 Pittsburgh, No. 3 Connecticut, No. 6 Oklahoma and No. 11 Kansas all lost in the opening game of their conference tournaments. North Carolina is still alive in Atlanta, advancing to face No. 22 Florida State in the semifinals Saturday, after a game the Tar Heels never led by more than the final margin.
Not that it’s anything new with these two teams.
At last year’s ACC tournament, Hansbrough grabbed a loose ball and hit a jumper with 0.8 seconds left to beat the Hokies in the semifinals. This game was just as tight, if not quite as dramatic at the end.
But Hansbrough scored the go-ahead basket with 36.1 seconds left—the 12th lead change of the second half—and then he tied up J.T. Thompson in the lane for a jump ball that gave North Carolina (28-3) possession with 5.2 seconds to go. Coach Seth Greenberg of Virginia Tech (18-14) threw his jacket in disgust, believing Thompson was fouled.
“What I saw doesn’t count, so it makes no difference,” Greenberg said. “The only people that count are the guys in the striped shirts and so, what they saw is what happened.”
Hansbrough was fouled on the inbounds and made both free throws. Then he helped out one last time, putting his hands in Vassallo’s face as the Hokies forward got off the final shot. It skimmed the far side of the rim, and the horn sounded.
Vassallo scored 26 points to lead Virginia Tech, hitting 4 of 7 from 3-point range. Hansbrough thought he had a chance on the final one, as well.
“He’s been making shots the whole game, so why not?” the North Carolina star said. “I just tried to put my hand up and give some help.”
Said Vassallo, “I had to make a quick decision. I didn’t think Hansbrough would come out and help. I thought I had the open look, then I saw him.”
Virginia Tech, which knocked off Miami in Thursday’s first round, played with the passion of a team that knew it probably needed at least one more win to earn a spot in the 65-team NCAA field.
The Hokies led through most of the first half, before North Carolina rallied for a 43-42 lead at the break. After nine lead changes in the first 7 minutes of the second half, Vassallo knocked down back-to-back 3-pointers and Virginia Tech pushed the margin as high as six points a couple of times.
But Hansbrough and the Tar Heels fought back. The reigning national player of the year scored 20 points in the second half, continually bulling his way inside to score or draw fouls.
Some of those fouls drew Greenberg’s ire. He couldn’t help but notice the stat sheet: Virginia Tech was called for 20 fouls, compared to 14 for North Carolina. The Hokies never reached the bonus during the second half.
“I guess we foul and they don’t,” Greenberg said sarcastically.
Hansbrough had to carry more of the load than usual with Lawson on the bench and Danny Green having a miserable game, hitting only 2-of-13 shots to finish with five points.
Lawson was in uniform but didn’t play, the Tar Heels deciding it would be more valuable to ensure the health of his big right toe for the NCAA tournament than risking him in the opening game of their quest for a third straight ACC tournament championship.
The speedy point guard wore a black, stiff-soled shoe on his right foot as he cheered on his teammates from the bench. The ACC said it was the first time the conference’s player of the year missed his team’s tournament opener.
Senior Bobby Frasor took over at point guard and played 37 minutes. He scored only four points, but did have four rebounds, three assists and just one turnover.
“I was surrounded by a band of scorers,” said Frasor, who started every game as a freshman but ceded his job after Lawson arrived.
Every possession was important. That was apparent early in the second half, when a defensive breakdown allowed North Carolina’s Deon Thompson to score an easy basket.
Greenberg angrily called a timeout and got even madder when his players strolled casually toward the bench. “What are you walking for!” he screamed.
Virginia Tech sure looked like an NCAA-worthy team, pushing the nation’s top-ranked squad to the brink. The Hokies hit 8 of 19 from 3-point range, turned it over only seven times and held the Tar Heels to just 36 percent shooting in the second half.
But North Carolina, led by Hansbrough’s eight rebounds, dominated on the boards, 44-33. Nineteen offensive rebounds—five of them pulled down by Hansbrough—gave the Tar Heels a 24-15 edge in second-chance points, a crucial edge in a game that was close from start to finish.
Virginia Tech led 26-17, its biggest lead, after Jeff Allen converted a three-point play with 6:45 left in the first half. But Hansbrough hit a jumper, Frasor swished a 3 off a screen, Hansbrough drew an offensive foul and Ed Davis banked in a left-handed shot to pull the Tar Heels to 26-24.
From there, it was game on.