ATLANTA -- North Carolina had blown a 13-point, first-half lead at Georgia Tech, and, after trailing for nearly nine minutes, forged a tie with 12 minutes, 27 seconds to go. A moment later, television mandated a timeout, and coach Dean Smith shared a few pointers with his team.
Then, a bemused grin on his face, the coach reminded his players above the din of the largest basketball crowd in Tech history: "This is a fun time. We're at their place. . ."
Taking a cue from their coach, the Tar Heels mounted a 16-6 run, turning a tense contest into a comfortable 86-76 victory.
"Their experience took over," said Georgia Tech guard Jon Barry. "We kind of panicked."
Said Smith, whose squad has been inconsistent: "Our team was very competitive, and we came back well in the second half. We got good play from everyone."
For the 13th time this season, guard Hubert Davis led North Carolina in scoring. Included among Davis' 23 points were consecutive three-pointers that enabled North Carolina to catch Tech at 59-59 with less than 12 1/2 minutes remaining.
With its sole senior in a groove, North Carolina seized control, taking the lead for good, 65-64, with 8:32 left on an inside basket by forward Brian Reese.
Yet it was defense that shaped the game, and ultimately won it for North Carolina, which hadn't played since defeating Virginia last weekend.
Georgia Tech came out determined to play man-to-man defense, and North Carolina capitalized with a fast-break attack that produced the game's first 10 points. The Yellow Jackets, who lost their third straight league game, committed turnovers on eight of their first 16 possessions.
Barely 6 1/2 minutes into the game, North Carolina enjoyed its largest advantage, 21-8.
With Georgia Tech trailing by 27-19 midway through the first half, coach Bobby Cremins conceded the point and switched to a 2-3 zone. Suddenly North Carolina went cold, scoring 11 for the remainder of the period. "At least we were getting shots," Smith said. "I'd be worried if we were throwing it away."
Led by forward James Forrest, the Yellow Jackets tied the game at 30 with 5:49 left in the half. Forrest, a 6-foot-8 freshman, scored 16 of his career-high 26 in the first half.
Tech led, 43-39, at halftime, thanks to a three-pointer at the buzzer by Barry. The senior had 20 points in the game, but only four in the second half. He missed 12 of 18 shots, including 10 of 13 from three-point range.
Stopping Barry was a point of emphasis for North Carolina. So was neutralizing the Jackets' leading scorer, Malcolm Mackey. The 6-11 junior wound up with three points, his lowest output in two seasons, and played 23 minutes because of foul trouble.
Without a go-to player inside, the Yellow Jackets lost their composure in the game's latter stages as the Tar Heels repeatedly switched between man-to-man and zone.
Tar Heels big man Kevin Salvadori recorded blocks on consecutive possessions after Reese's go-ahead score. Also, Davis shut down Barry and backcourt mate Derrick Phelps and set a North Carolina record with eight steals to complement his 11 assists.
NORTH CAROLINA (15-3, 5-2) -- Reese 4-8 0-0 8, Lynch 8-12 5-7 21, Montross 6-10 0-1 12, Phelps 2-5 1-2 5, Davis 7-14 5-6 23, Salvadori 1-3 0-0 2, Sullivan 2-5 9-10 13, Rodl 1-1 0-0 2, Wenstrom 0-0 0-0 0, Williams 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 31-59 20-26 86.
GEORGIA TECH (15-6, 3-4) -- Mackey 0-4 3-4 3, Forrest 11-14 4-4 26, Geiger 2-7 1-1 5, Best 3-14 3-4 11, Barry 6-18 5-7 20, Newbill 3-4 0-2 6, Hill 2-5 0-1 5. Totals 27-66 16-23 76.
Halftime--Georgia Tech 43, North Carolina 39. 3-point goals--North Carolina 4-11 (Davis 4-8, Phelps 0-1, Reese 0-2), Georgia Tech 6-25 (Barry 3-13, Best 2-9, Hill 1-2, Forrest 0-1). Fouled out--None. Rebounds--North Carolina 36 (Lynch 10), Georgia Tech 39 (Newbill 9). Assists--North Carolina 18 (Phelps 11), Georgia Tech 19 (Best 9). Total fouls--North Carolina 17, Georgia Tech 20. A--10,026.