"When I let it go, I was like, ‘It's a little short,'" Noel said. "But once it went in, I jumped for joy."
UNC (1-0) led by five with 53 seconds to play and it appeared Carolina would be able to salt away the win at the free throw line. But Bobby Frasor, Noel and then Reyshawn Terry missed five free throws combined down the stretch.
"Make your free throws and it could be an eight-point game and you feel a lot better about it," Roy Williams said.
Meanwhile, the Bulldogs (0-1), reigning Atlantic Sun Conference champs and the preseason pick to repeat with all of its starters back, managed to tie it at 80-80 with 13 seconds remaining on Ricky McPhee's fourth three-pointer of the game.
But Frasor brought the ball up court and found Noel at the top of the key. Noel's three-pointer bounced around the rim before finally falling through.
"When I knew they were shagging off and I saw how much room I had, I just yelled for Bobby to get me the ball and I knew I was going to shoot it," Noel said.
Tyler Hansbrough's 21 points on 9-of-12 shooting paced four Tar Heels in double figures.
"My teammates got me the ball a lot and I got some opportunities for baskets, so I took advantage of it," said Hansbrough, speaking to the media for the first time at UNC. "Whatever it takes to win is what's going to be my role."
Noel and Danny Green tallied 17 each, while Terry scored nine of his 13 points in the second half.
Marcus Ginyard added eight points to go with four steals on the defensive end.
"I'm extremely happy for David Noel, because he has done a great job leading this team in practice," Williams said.
Seemingly unfazed in their first-ever meeting with the Tar Heels, the Bulldogs jumped out to a 15-8 lead, before the first of two consecutive threes by Green gave Carolina its first lead of the game at 24-22 at the 8:06 mark of the first half.
On UNC's next possession, Green would find Hansbrough underneath for what would turn out to be an old-fashioned three-pointer, and it appeared Carolina might be on the verge of extending its margin.
But Gardner-Webb countered every rally by the Tar Heels, and outscored the defending national champs 20-11 in the final 3:27 of the first half, as the two teams went to the locker room tied at 46.
"We played everywhere the last few years from Tennessee to UNLV to Colorado to Arkansas," Bulldogs coach Mark Scruggs said. "We have played all the big guys that we can play and have never walked into a place and been intimidated."
Carolina made its run early in the second half, turning a 58-58 score into a 68-58 advantage. A monstrous slam in the lane by Terry followed by another basket by the Tar Heel junior a couple possessions later gave UNC its biggest lead of the night at 72-61 with 9:05 remaining before the Bulldogs began their comeback.