Virginia 79,

North Carolina 72

-- After 1,032 days, 70 games and 4 surgeries on his right knee, Majestic Mapp returned to the court for Virginia this afternoon against North Carolina. He made only a cameo appearance in the first half and missed the only shot he took, but the Cavaliers didn't need much from him. They got enough from Todd Billet and Travis Watson to keep the Tar Heels at arm's length in a 79-72 win at University Hall.

After hitting only 7 of 26 shots in Virginia's past four games, Billet was 8 of 15 today -- his best percentage of the season -- and scored 24 points. He and senior power forward Travis Watson (18 points, 12 rebounds, 3 blocks) led the Cavaliers (10-3, 1-1 ACC) to 57 percent shooting in the first half against UNC's zone defense.

The Tar Heels (9-5, 1-1) switched to man defense after falling behind 48-30 at halftime and whittled the margin to six with 21/2 minutes remaining. But the Cavaliers held strong defensively on Carolina's next three possessions and kept the lead safe with four free throws in the final 30 seconds.

"It was just a game we needed to win," said Billet, one of several Virginia players who struggled in last weekend's 75-63 loss at North Carolina State.

North Carolina got 18 points from sophomore Jawad Williams and 16 from freshman Rashad McCants but could not overcome 40 percent shooting, including 7 of 27 on three-point attempts.

"This may sound crazy, but I'm as excited about my group right now as I've been," Coach Matt Doherty said. "To be down 18 at U-Va. against a very talented ballclub [and] come back, cut it to six with a couple minutes to go with such a young group. . . . That was exciting for me."

The Cavaliers took control with a 19-2 run in the final five minutes of the first half and held on to ensure Mapp's return would not be bittersweet. They have won the past four meetings with UNC -- their longest win streak in the series since 1920 -- and six of the past seven.

Mapp, a 6-foot-2 point guard, entered the game at an officials' timeout with 7 minutes 23 seconds left in the first half and ran Virginia's offense for four possessions. His only statistical contribution was a missed three-point attempt from the wing, but he drove past UNC's Jackie Manuel and drew a foul, then drew a loud ovation from the crowd of 8,392 as he returned to the bench with 5:11 left.

"He didn't have a big impact or imprint on the game, but the fact that he had the courage to play was great," said Cavaliers Coach Pete Gillen, who recruited Mapp 41/2 years ago to be Virginia's cornerstone. "I thought that was more important than us beating a very fine Carolina team. All those thousands of hours of rehab and the pain and the doubt -- I was thrilled for him."

Mapp said today's return was only a starting point for the rest of his career.

"I didn't have big emotions about getting back on the court," the onetime McDonald's all-American said. "I feel like I haven't done anything yet.

"I'm the kind of person that wants to get back to being the best. It matters. Believe you me, it does matter. I'm not coming back to be a mediocre player. I'm coming back to eventually be the best again."

Cavaliers Notes: Virginia freshman Derrick Byars played only eight minutes after popping his left shoulder out of joint 59 seconds into the game. Gillen said he hopes Byars can play Wednesday night at No. 1 Duke. . . .

Junior center Nick Vander Laan was in uniform for the Cavaliers but did not warm up or play in the game because Gillen decided not to use him. . . .

Sophomore forward Jason Clark (two points, three rebounds, three blocks) played 22 minutes after missing the past 11/2 games because of a sprained ankle. . . .

Watson improved to 21st on Virginia's career scoring list and fourth in blocks. He is six behind Junior Burrough for second place in rebounds.

Todd Billet (24 points) drives to basket underneath Tar Heels Jawad Williams, left, and Bryon Sanders. "It was just a game we needed to win," Billet said.