Yellow Jackets send Tar Heels packing in opener of ACC Tournament

Photo by Chuck Burton

Photo by Chuck Burton

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Derrick Favors and Georgia Tech didn't let struggling North Carolina ruin their NCAA tournament chances. Instead, the Yellow Jackets moved on in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament and left the defending national champions to ponder their own uncertain postseason outlook.

Favors had 18 points, nine rebounds and five blocks to help Georgia Tech hold off North Carolina 62-58 in Thursday night's first round, earning a needed victory for their NCAA resume while also completing a three-game sweep of the Tar Heels.

Gani Lawal added 12 points for the seventh-seeded Yellow Jackets (20-11), who trailed by 13 points in the first half before rallying early in the second half and finally pushing ahead in the final 4 minutes.

The Yellow Jackets advanced to Friday's quarterfinals to face 19th-ranked Maryland, the tournament's No. 2 seed. But coach Paul Hewitt, whose team had lost five of seven to close the regular season, didn't dwell too much on the Yellow Jackets' postseason possibilities.

"Let's just see how the tournament goes," Hewitt said. "That's our approach right now. We've got a chance to play Maryland. All the other stuff, really it's not even part of the discussion right now."

But it was "the" discussion for the 10th-seeded Tar Heels (16-16), who are now left -- strange as it may sound -- to hope for a NIT berth.

"If somebody is going to invite me to play, I want to play," North Carolina coach Roy Williams said when asked whether his team would accept a NIT bid. "Period. The end. Are we worthy enough to be invited? I don't know. Those people who make those decisions get to make that decision. Maybe they won't even invite us."

Favors had a huge game to keep the Yellow Jackets afloat. He hit his first seven shots, then came up with one of his biggest plays by blocking Tyler Zeller's layup attempt to tie it with about 2 minutes left. He had his way inside almost every time he touched the ball, particularly when he could use his 6-foot-10, 246-pound frame inside against lanky fellow freshman John Henson.

"I think I just took it upon myself not to let the team lose," Favors said. "I felt the opportunity for me to score, and I took it. Whatever they gave me, I took."

In many ways, the game illustrated the kind of season both teams have had to this point. The Yellow Jackets did just enough to keep themselves alive in the ACC tournament, while the Tar Heels just weren't good enough -- particularly on the perimeter -- in the critical final minutes.

D'Andre Bell put the Yellow Jackets ahead for good with a jumper for a 58-56 lead with 4:04 left. A few minutes later, Favors wiped away Zeller's seemingly easy putaway, and Lawal corralled a loose ball and hit a hook shot to beat the shot clock and make it 60-56 with 1:44 to play.

Trailing by four in the final seconds, the Tar Heels managed a final desperation possession with Larry Drew II missing a 3-pointer and Will Graves airballing one of his own a few seconds later to seal Georgia Tech's victory. North Carolina failed to hit a field goal in the final 5 minutes, part of a 33 percent shooting day.

But to listen to the Yellow Jackets, the decisive stretch came much earlier. Trailing 34-24 at the break, the Yellow Jackets scored the first seven points out of halftime then tied the game at 36 on Iman Shumpert's 3-pointer with 17:31 left.

"We came out in the second half and were like, 'This is our game,"' Lawal said. "We were down 10, but there was no reason to panic. We just came out with a sense of urgency, and that's what you saw in us. We just got ourselves going."

The Tar Heels had won two straight games before last weekend, when Duke unleashed plenty of pent-up frustration and ended North Carolina's four-year winning streak at Cameron Indoor Stadium in humiliating fashion: a 32-point beating that could have been much, much worse.

That sent North Carolina's players into this week's tournament with the knowledge that their NCAA chances were reduced to an unprecedented four-wins-in-four-days run through Greensboro. The Tar Heels ended up losing their tournament opener for the first time since falling to Georgia Tech in the 2004 quarterfinals.

Zeller finished with 17 points and a career-high 10 rebounds, but the Tar Heels' perimeter went a combined 6 for 34 from the field and 1 for 15 from 3-point range.

"We were playing for the name on the jersey and the people who have worn that jersey," Henson said. "I feel like we tried as hard as we could. It's just sometimes things aren't going your way. When it rains, it pours, and I think that's how it happened this season."