When you walk in the Tar Heels’ locker room at the Georgia Dome, there is a 4-foot by 6-foot dry erase wipe-off board standing against the far-left wall. On Friday, there were only three words written on that board, scrawled in blue letters: “Find a way!”
North Carolina did just that against Virginia Tech, overcoming the absence of Ty Lawson (toe) and a 36.1 percent second-half shooting display to rally from an early nine-point deficit and outscore the Hokies 8-2 over the final three minutes of regulation.
“Whatever it took, however we did it, just win,” Ellington replied asked about the phrase on the wipe-off board. “That’s the attitude that you’ve got to have in any tournament, because if you lose, you go home. So you’ve just got to find a way.”
Hansbrough (9-of-17 shooting, 10-of-10 from the free throw line) may have missed out on ACC Player of the Year honors earlier this week to Lawson, but the four-time All-American delivered when his teammates needed him the most in the closing minutes. Hansbrough scored North Carolina’s final six points, including the winning bucket in the paint with 33 seconds remaining, but his highlight came on the defensive end of the floor.
With Virginia Tech working the clock for a last-second shot, trailing 77-76, the senior forward reached for the ball and forced a jump ball as J.T. Thompson was attempting to drive down the left side of the lane with five seconds on the clock. The possession arrow was pointing toward UNC’s end of the floor.
“I saw him coming down the lane,” Hansbrough said. “It looked like he just stopped and I went over to get the ball. Plain and simple.”
Hansbrough was fouled and connected on the ensuing free throws for the final margin of victory, but the Tar Heels still had to hold their breath as A.D. Vassallo attempted a game-tying 3-pointer from the left wing – over Hansbrough – as the game clock expired.
Lawson missed his first game since injuring his right big toe during last Friday’s practice, despite playing 36 minutes in Sunday’s victory over Duke. The junior point indicated in postgame interviews that his status is day-to-day.
“The swelling finally went down from the Duke game, probably like two days ago, so we’re going to see how it is when I wake up in the morning,” Lawson said as he sat at his locker munching on a sandwich with his right foot planted firmly in a trash can full of ice. “It’s been gradually getting better, which is good.”
Lawson has missed eight games over the past two seasons due to injury, and during that stretch, Hansbrough has increased his averages to 28.0 points and 11.6 rebounds per outing.
His 28-point effort on Friday marked his ACC Tournament career-high. Hansbrough now has 2,745 points, passing Hank Gathers for 17th in the NCAA record books for career point totals, and currently sits just 25 points away from breaking J.J. Redick’s ACC scoring record.
With Lawson sidelined, Bobby Frasor (four points, four rebounds, three assists, one turnover) returned to the starting role at point guard for the first time since his freshman season and provided exactly what Roy Williams needed – a solid and steady performance.
“No one is going to be able to fill Ty’s shoes,” said Frasor, whose 37 minutes topped his previous career-high of 34 set during his freshman year against Illinois. “… No one can duplicate that. I just wanted to come in with a steady hand, not turn the ball over and get guys the ball.”
North Carolina trailed by as many as nine in the first half, before using a 10-2 spurt to help build a 43-42 lead at the break.
Wayne Ellington added 16 points on 6-of-10 shooting to go along with five rebounds and four assists, and Deon Thompson posted 12 points and seven rebounds. Larry Drew contributed four assists and three rebounds against two turnovers in 14 minutes of action, and Ed Davis (10 points, six points) delivered the Tar Heel bench’s first double-digit outing since Will Graves scored 10 points against Evansville on Dec. 18.
“I am extremely proud of my club,” UNC head coach Roy Williams said. “It’s been a difficult week not knowing if Ty was going to play. We told the team late last night that he was not going to play. I was proud of Bobby and Larry.”
North Carolina shot 44.6 percent (29-of-65) from the field, while holding Virginia Tech to 44.8 percent (30-of-67). The Tar Heels also won the rebounding battle, 44-33.
The Tar Heels return to action on Saturday for a 1:30pm tip in semifinal action against Florida State, which defeated Georgia Tech, 64-62, on Friday.