Blame it on North Carolina. What should have been a memorable confrontation was turned into a relatively easy victory today by the top-ranked Tar Heels, who came out against a fourth-ranked Georgia Tech team some call No. 1 and said argue with this: UNC 85, Visitors 77.
In front of a sellout crowd of 21,444, the Tar Heels took a 42-31 halftime lead, built as much as a 14-point margin and never let the Yellow Jackets come closer than seven in the second half. It was hardly the kind of game that was expected at Dean Smith Student Activities Center, where the Yellow Jackets were supposed to at least throw a scare into the Tar Heels (20-0 overall, 5-0 in the Atlantic Coast Conference), and possibly even wrest control of the ACC from them.
"I guess it wasn't very emotional," said North Carolina guard Steve Hale. "We had a big lead and sustained it pretty much the whole game, so there wasn't much to get emotional about."
Georgia Tech (16-2, 5-1), which had won a school-record 15 straight, lost something between Atlanta and here. The Yellow Jackets, who beat North Carolina three straight times last season, are one of the few teams in the conference that might match up physically with the imposing Tar Heels. But today they were handled with shocking ease, getting outrebounded, 37-27, and receiving the worst of nearly every exchange with the endlessly deep Tar Heels.
Carolina's relentless trapping defense forced Tech into 13 first-half turnovers, 17 for the game. Offensively, its power inside game did what it pleased, led by 6-foot-11 Brad Daugherty, who had 23 points and 11 rebounds.
"I was really disappointed in my preparation," Georgia Tech Coach Bobby Cremins said. "We didn't handle their trapping defense well at all. They overpowered us inside. The one bright thing is we didn't give up. But I've got to go back to work. I need to get them better prepared for a game of this caliber."
When Daugherty wasn't devastating Tech, forward Joe Wolf -- a 6-10 junior who averages eight points -- was. He scored a career-high 22 points, going 10 for 11 from the field, and had eight rebounds. Freshman guard Jeff Lebo had 12 points.
"If we're going to have a chance to beat them next time we're going to have play great," guard Mark Price said. "Obviously, we didn't do that today."
Georgia Tech did outshoot North Carolina, 59 percent to 52 percent. But the Yellow Jackets were largely unable to work their way inside and were dogged by foul trouble.
Price had 22 points but also had seven turnovers. Freshman Tom Hammonds, the only member of the front court who managed to work inside consistently, scored 13 points, all in the second half, and had a season-high 10 rebounds before fouling out with 6:36 left.
The Yellow Jackets lost a couple of key matchups that allowed North Carolina to dominate. The lack of an inside game was partly the fault of John Salley, who got just one rebound in the first half, committed his second foul within the first nine minutes and generally was ineffective. He was three for seven from the floor, scored 11 points and had just five rebounds.
In another key matchup, North Carolina's Hale got the best of Bruce Dalrymple, who shot just once from the floor and picked up three fouls in the first half. He fouled out with 3:16 left after scoring 10 points.
It was Dalrymple's foul that ended any chance of a comeback. Price hit a jumper to make it 78-69 with 4:14 left, Lebo missed, and Dalrymple made a fast-break layup over Lebo to bring it to 78-71. He appeared to have drawn a foul but instead was called for a charge after the shot. So instead of having a chance to shoot and bring his team within six, Dalrymple fouled out, Lebo made his two shots and it was a nine-point game again.
Salley had a chance to close it up with a one-and-one with 2:42 left but missed. Then Hale found his way inside to make it a 10-point game with 2:18 left, 83-73. When Duane Ferrell missed for Tech, Daugherty drew Salley's fourth foul with 1:49 left. Daugherty's two foul shots made it 85-73.
North Carolina effectively took control of the game for good when it went on a 17-4 run in a little over four minutes midway through the first half. The Tar Heels never let their lead drop below seven points again.
Carolina has been playing perhaps the toughest back-to-back schedule in the nation over the past week. The Tar Heels managed to escape Duke at home and Marquette on the road last weekend and are faced with playing 16th-ranked Notre Dame here Sunday as a followup to their confrontation with Tech.
"It didn't mean a lot in the conference standings," North Carolina Coach Dean Smith said of today's game. "We still have to go to Duke and Georgia Tech. There's still a lot of basketball left."