ATLANTA - When the top-ranked team in the country makes a trek to Alexander Memorial Coliseum, particularly in atypical snowy conditions, anything is bound to happen.
Late Wednesday was no exception, as the matchup featuring No. 1 North Carolina and Georgia Tech proved to be yet another gritty performance between conference foes.
And despite their struggles early this season, the Yellow Jackets came within mere inches of upsetting the Tar Heels (18-0, 3-0 Atlantic Coast Conference), losing in the final seconds, 83-82.
Led by Tyler Hansbrough, who scored 27 points and had the game-winning block on Zack Peacock's shot, North Carolina was able to keep its undefeated streak in tact.
"We feel very lucky," said North Carolina coach Roy Williams. "They had two shots at it in the end, but I thought Tyler came across with a nice block. It was a great, great effort physically by both teams."
Before the defensive gem, Danny Green put the Tar Heels up for good with 22 seconds to go after sinking one of two free throws. Georgia Tech (7-9, 0-3) then had the opportunity to win, but it was at this time when Hansbrough altered the potential winning shot. Peacock attempted another shot after collecting the loose ball with three seconds left, only to watch the ball careen out.
"We showed ourselves that we can run with, I think, the fastest team in the country," said Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt, "but unfortunately we came up one point short."
No doubt the snow kept some fans away. Regardless, there were still 9,191 on hand to cheer, but mostly jeer, Hansbrough. At one point objects were hurled in his direction on the court, causing officials to momentarily stop play until order resumed.
If anything, the heckling seemed to fuel No. 50. He responded with 18 first half points, helping North Carolina to its best start since the 1985-86 campaign.
"It was really, really rough," remarked a bloodied and scratched Hansbrough after the game.
The Yellow Jackets gave the 6-foot-9 junior all he could handle, making him earn his way through a constant barrage of double and triple teams.
Still, Hansbrough ended 7-of-14 from the field with 11 rebounds and three steals. It was his 26th career double-double.
"I do think that Tyler was really something else," said Williams after getting his first win at Georgia Tech in five tries as North Carolina's head coach. "They did a great job of focusing their defense on him."
Having absolutely nothing to lose, the Yellow Jackets came out firing on all cylinders. Like a solid heavyweight match, the teams responded each time the other scored, which led to a combined seven lead changes and 16 ties.
"They swarmed to the ball on every shot that we took," said Williams regarding what he felt Georgia Tech did best against his squad. "There (weren't) too many uncontested shots. It was a really, really hard fought basketball game. I have a great deal of respect for Paul and his staff."
With one minute and 55 seconds left until halftime - just when the Tar Heels looked to pull away with one of their trademark runs - Maurice Miller answered with a quick jumper, followed by a 3-pointer.
Another Miller field goal at the buzzer closed the gap, 48-46, igniting the crowd as both teams exited the floor.
Gani Lawal also helped keep the score close for Georgia Tech in the opening half, scoring 11 of his 13 points.
The score would remain close throughout the duration of the game, proving the initial 20 minutes was merely a preview of more to come. After trading baskets to open the second half, Georgia Tech regained the lead 56-54 at the 16:30 mark when D'Andre Bell drilled three of his overall seven points from downtown.
Deon Thompson countered with a soft jumper; however, after two Jeremis Smith free throws the Yellow Jackets were soon back on top. They would retain the lead until the 8:54 clip when the speedy North Carolina guard Ty Lawson scored five points in a span of 28 seconds.
Both squads kept their intensity alive with hustle and sheer grit, trading baskets which led to several lead changes down the stretch.
Tied at 82 with 23 seconds to go, Green drew the last foul, making one of two free throws to hold off the pesky Yellow Jackets.
Last season Georgia Tech upset North Carolina with an 84-77 victory in Atlanta.
"There's no question we talked about trying to come down here and play better and be more competitive," said Williams. "Last year they out-competed us in every single manner. Tonight, I thought both teams were really competitive - guys were going after it and knocking each other down, but also picking each other up."
Heralded as one of the best players in the country, Hansbrough gave no reason for one to think otherwise. Dubbed "Psycho T" based on his relentless work ethic, he lived up to his billing, battling for possession time and time again in the post amidst defenders.
As a result, the Tar Heels won the battle in the paint, scoring 48 points compared to 36.
Lawson ended with 13 points, five assists and four turnovers. Thompson followed with nine points, while Marcus Ginyard added eight on four breakaway slam dunks.
The win comes despite having three more turnovers than Georgia Tech (12) and 2-of-10 shooting from downtown.
"We didn't get a very good night from some of our perimeter players with their movement," admitted Williams.
On the other hand, Georgia Tech was 8-of-21 from long distance (38 percent).
But the Yellow Jackets didn't receive any home cooking from officials. They went to the charity stripe just 10 times, making eight free throws.
Meanwhile, North Carolina shot 21-of-26 from the free-throw line. Hansbrough alone was 13-of-15 (87 percent).
"We've played the best teams in the country," noted Hewitt. "We just have to play better at the end and make free throws. I wish we could have gotten to the foul line more, but we didn't."
When questioned how he felt about the free throw differential, Hewitt shrugged and said, "Nothing I can do about that."
Smith scored a team-high 15 points for the Yellow Jackets. Peacock reached double figures in points (14) and rebounds (11). Anthony Morrow netted 13 on 5-of-15 from the field.
Miller accounted for all seven of his points within the final two minutes of the first half.
"Well, they've got to come out and play with the same effort on Saturday," said Hewitt of his players. "I basically told them you're upset now, but I'll be upset if you come back here Saturday and don't play with the same effort and intensity."
The Yellow Jackets, who host Virginia Tech on Saturday, have now lost five games this season to teams in the current top 25.
When asked whether or not he perceived this as a moral victory, Hewitt was quick to say it was not.
"But I like the fact that we're getting better and better," he said.