ATLANTA -- At the final buzzer, Tyler Hansbrough amicably grabbed Virginia Tech's A.D. Vassallo and congratulated him on a great game. Moments earlier, the two seniors staged a 40-minute battle which ended when Vassallo got off a three-point attempt that almost forced overtime. Unfortunately for Virginia Tech's NCAA tournament hopes, the ball bounced out, and North Carolina inched into the ACC semifinals with a 79-76 win (RECAP | BOX).
After he made his way through the handshake line, Hansbrough threw his hands in the air and sprinted off toward the tunnel behind the Carolina bench. Problem was, that was not the player exit tunnel. It might have been his only mistake of the day.
Making up for the absence of ACC Player of the Year Ty Lawson, who watched with an open-toed walking boot from the bench, Hansbrough led Carolina with 28 points, eight rebounds and the defensive play of the game. With five seconds left, Hansbrough tied up J.T. Thompson for a jump ball in the lane with UNC leading by just a point. The possession arrow went to UNC, and Hansbrough hit two free throws moments later after a quick Virginia Tech foul.
"I saw him coming own the lane," Hansbrough said of the jump ball. "It looked like he just stopped and I went over to get the ball. Plain and simple."
Needless to say, the call was not a popular one in the Virginia Tech locker room, where the reality of coming up just short of an NCAA bid again began to sink in.
"J.T. made a tough play, and then they called a jump ball from behind," said Malcolm Delaney. "I don't know how you can do that."
Coach Seth Greenberg avoided the issue because he didn't want a fine from the ACC, but it was clear where he stood.
"What I saw doesn't count, so it makes no difference," he said. "The only people that count were the guys wearing striped shirts."
You can forgive Virginia Tech for being bitter. This is two straight years the Hokies have watched Hansbrough and the Heels keep them out of the NCAA tournament in heartbreaking fashion. Last year, Hansbrough rebounded a Lawson miss and hit a shot from the baseline with 0.8 seconds left that sunk the Hokies 68-66 in the ACC semifinals. On Friday, it was an inside hoop with 36 seconds left, a jump ball and two free throws -- all by Hansbrough -- that spelled doom.
"This feels worse," said Delaney, who had 17 points and 10 assists. "We had more control of this game."
Virginia Tech led from the 13:28 mark until 1:13 to play, thanks mostly to Vassallo, who finished with 26 points and 10 rebounds. Carolina could not stop the swingman, who was scoring inside and outside and would have had more if he didn't sit the final eight minutes of the first half with foul trouble.
"He's a tough matchup," said Danny Green, who was charged with slowing him. "I was chasing him off screens all day. It is not easy to guard someone like that."
Vassallo gave the Hokies their final lead at 76-75 on a difficult putback of his own miss with 52 seconds left. From there, it was the Hansbrough show.
"As frustrated as I am, I feel good that at least we did what we could," Vasallo said. "It was not a blowout. They are a great team. I respect them a lot. We gave them so many punches, and they came back and punched us back. That is the sign of a great team."
Carolina will now face Florida State, a team that survived its own scare from 12th-seeded Georgia Tech before winning 64-62 (RECAP | BOX). Tech nearly pulled off its second shocker in two days, but came up one defensive stop short. Georgia Tech led 62-61 with 24 seconds left, and Florida State tried to get Toney Douglas free. Tech triple-teamed the ACC first-teamer, forcing him to call timeout with 9.9 seconds to go. On the inbounds play, with Tech focused on Douglas, Derwin Kitchen slipped free and sank a layup and was fouled. Iman Shumpert's last-gasp jumper from the lane missed for Tech, ending a frustrating season.
The last game Florida State and UNC played, like the two at the Georgia Dome on Friday, went down to the wire. Lawson hit a running three-pointer as time expired to give the Tar Heels an 80-77 win on Jan. 28. Lawson, sitting with his foot in a bucket of ice water in the Carolina locker room on Friday, said he would be re-evaluated on Saturday, but his status remains doubtful. If he's still out, Bobby Frasor and Larry Drew, the duo who handled the majority of Lawson's minutes at the point against Virginia Tech, both proved more than capable.
"Carolina has been one of the few teams that is able to lose a player and continue winning," said Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton. "Whether he plays or he doesn't play, we know we are playing a team that is very capable of sending you home."