This is why they still play the Atlantic Coast Conference basketball tournament.

For two hours today, Georgia Tech and North Carolina kept 16,723 people in the Omni panting with tension, playing for a title that allegedly doesn't mean as much any more. When it was over, after 40 draining minutes, Tech had its first ACC title with a 57-54 victory over the Tar Heels.

"That was a defensive struggle," said North Carolina Coach Dean Smith, who was denied his 10th tournament title. "Every shot was contested. I thought it was a great game for the fans."

Both teams will move on to the NCAA tournament. Georgia Tech (24-7) will open play in the Omni against Mercer in the East regional and North Carolina (24-8) will go to the Southeast regional and face Middle Tennessee State. But today, no one was thinking that far ahead.

This was a game decided finally by the big men after guards had dominated the tournament.

John Salley made a follow shot with 1:15 left to tie the score for Tech. Yvon Joseph stole the ball at the other end and made a foul shot to give the Yellow Jackets their first lead of the day, 51-50, with 52 seconds left. And Salley rebounded Joseph's missed second shot to set up Mark Price's two free throws with 22 seconds left for a 53-50 lead.

"It came down to our size against their size, " said Joseph (13 points, nine rebounds). "At the end, I gambled on the steal and it worked out. I know I played some defense today, no one has to tell me that."

Everyone played defense today. Tech shot 38 percent, but forced 21 turnovers to balance that problem. Both teams rely on their inside game to score and both coaches preached "deny, deny, deny," to their perimeter players. There were few possessions that produced a quick or an easy shot.

"We knew it would be that kind of game defensively," Carolina guard Steve Hale said. "In the end, it came down to who could execute better what got them here. It was them."

It didn't start out that way. Carolina took a 14-3 lead after six minutes. Price, the controversial choice as tournament MVP, missed his first four shots. Bruce Dalrymple (12 points, five assists and four rebounds today), who many thought deserved the award, didn't play well, either. The Yellow Jackets were tight.

"I was scared to death out there," Dalrymple said. "I felt tired, out of it. We didn't have any enthusiasm. We just had to get to halftime and get it back."

That is exactly what they did. Thanks largely to Salley (14 points), the Yellow Jackets crept back and trailed, 32-27, at halftime. Carolina hurt itself by committing nine turnovers when it had a chance to open a huge lead.

At halftime, Tech Coach Bobby Cremins, who has turned this program from coal to diamond in four seasons, had a talk with Dalrymple.

"I told him he had played two of the best games I'd ever seen a kid play to get us here and I didn't want it to end this way for him," Cremins said. "He was out of it, he just wasn't there. But he's a winner, I knew he'd come back."

It wasn't quite that simple. When Dalrymple still looked sluggish a minute into the second half, Cremins yanked him. "I put him on the bench and said, 'What's wrong, are you a quitter?' "

Cremins got his answer quickly. Ten seconds later, Dalrymple said he was ready and returned to the game. At that moment, so did Tech. Trailing, 38-30, after Joe Wolf's hook with 14:42 left, Tech held Carolina scoreless for the next 4:17. During that stretch, Dalrymple tipped in Price's miss, Price (16 points on five-for-16 shooting) made a jump shot, Dalrymple hit an 18-footer and Salley dunked to tie the score at 38.

"We sort of let it get away then," Hale said. "Their defense deserves credit, but we didn't take care of the ball well enough."

From 38-38 to the finish, every possession was a battle. No one wanted to give up position to anyone. Three times Carolina built the lead to four, the last time with 4:52 left when Daugherty, who had 16 points (as did Kenny Smith), hit two foul shots to make it 48-44.

Dalrymple put in an 18-footer, and after Wolf's missed hook shot, Joseph's two free throws tied the score at 48 with 3:36 left. By now, the traffic in the lane resembled downtown Washington in a snowstorm. No one could get any room.

Each team missed a chance for the lead -- Smith shot an air ball and Price missed a jumper. But with 1:38 left, Smith's two foul shots made it 50-48. At that point, Tech's big men took over.

Salley rebounded yet another miss by Price to tie it at 50. Carolina came down, set up and Wolf tried to lob the ball to Daugherty. "I knew I couldn't let him get to the ball," Joseph said. "I saw Wolf lob it and I just jumped around and went as high as I could to get it."

He got it and got fouled with 52 seconds left. "I walked down the court and I looked up at the scoreboard and saw it was tied," Joseph said. "I said, 'Whoo, I better make this one.' "

He made the first one. But the second shot rebounded long. Salley, leaping into the lane, got the ball. Tech ran off 30 more seconds before Price -- 20 for 20 from the foul line for the tournament -- hit two with 22 seconds left to make it 53-50.

There still was some strangeness left. After Smith scored to make it 53-52 with 14 seconds left, Carolina called time to set up its defense. "We wanted to deny the ball to Price on the inbounds pass," Dean Smith said. "If he got it, we wanted to double-team him and go for a steal or make him pass and then foul someone else."

The plan worked -- partly. Tech had to pass inbounds to Scott Petway but no Tar Heel could get to him in time to foul. He slipped the ball to Price, who avoided a trap at half court and passed to Joseph. Joseph smartly gave it right back to Price before he could be fouled.

While all this was going on, the scoreboard clock remained firmly on :14 until Price crossed midcourt. Anywhere from five to eight seconds probably had elapsed. "I couldn't believe it when I looked up and the clock was still on 14," Cremins said. "I started screaming and pointing and yelling. But then when I saw Price going to the line, I relaxed a little."

The officials put the clock on :08 after Price was fouled, apparently never making up all the lost time. Price made both shots to make it 55-52. Dalrymple then stole the long inbounds pass and everyone in gold started hugging each other.

"This is an awfully proud day," Cremins said. "We worked hard to get this far. It's things like this that make you love coaching."

And games like this that make you love basketball.