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While it's early to call it a must-win game, to claim an NCAA Tournament top seed in March, UNC could ill afford to lose two non-conference games this early. And if indeed it is one of the best teams in the country, UNC couldn't slip up at home against the Buckeyes (6-1), who were playing without freshman sensation Greg Oden.
"We don't want guys to come in and win on our home court no matter who the team is – No. 1 or No. 100," said Brandan Wright, who played just six minutes in the first half because of the match-up problems the Buckeyes' guards presented. He bounced back with 10 of his 11 points in the final period.
On a night when 11 Tar Heels scored, Tyler Hansbrough rang up a double-double with a team-high 21 points and a career-high 14 rebounds.
Wayne Ellington celebrated his 19th birthday by scoring his age on what Williams called his best defensive game to date.
"This was my best birthday present yet," Ellington said.
The Buckeyes' guards befuddled the Tar Heel defense with lightning quick dribble penetration that set up its perimeter game. They knocked down 13-of-26 from beyond the arc and shot 52.3 percent on threes for the game.
Ron Lewis led Ohio State with 30 points, Ivan Harris added 17 and Daequan Cook had 14.
Carolina also shot well and found its three-point shooting touch down the stretch making 4-of-8 threes in the second half. The Tar Heels' 65.5 field goal shooting percentage in the second half was their highest mark since the first half against Oakland in the opening round of the 2005 NCAA Tournament.
Trailing 48-44 at the half, Carolina streaked out of the locker room using a 9-0 run to take its first lead at the 17:47 mark. But Ohio State countered to take a 66-60 lead on third-straight three by Harris.
UNC delivered the knockout blow with an 17-2 run over 4:01 to go up 80-70.
"They answered every punch we threw," OSU coach Thad Matta said. "When they erased our 10-point lead, it really took the momentum from us."
When Ty Lawson (13 points, five assists, zero turnovers) connected with two seconds on the shot clock, Carolina enjoyed its largest lead of the night at 84-72 with 4:37 to play.
Marcus Ginyard's defense and rebounding helped keep UNC close when the Buckeyes seemed poised to pull away in the first half. He finished the game with five of his eight boards on the offensive end, and three steals and a blocked shot.
"Marcus kept us in the game with a couple big put backs to keep possessions alive," Wes Miller said. "He was huge for us in the first half, and he continued that in the second half as well."
The ACC is 8-0 all-time in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge after posting an 8-4 advantage this year.
UNC wraps up the week on Saturday at noon in the Smith Center versus another high-profile opponent. Kentucky (4-2) fell from the national rankings this week after dropping two in the Maui Invitational.