CHARLOTTE -- Tyler Hansbrough has relentlessly chased the ball all season. That aggressiveness is a big reason why No. 1 North Carolina barely avoided a stunning upset in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament Saturday.
The All-American grabbed a loose rebound and hit a jumper with 0.8 seconds left to help the Tar Heels beat Virginia Tech 68-66 in the semifinals, keeping their tournament title defense alive and dealing a painful blow to the Hokies' NCAA tournament hopes.
Hansbrough finished with 26 points and nine rebounds for top-seeded North Carolina (31-2), who trailed almost the entire way against a team it had routed last month before rallying for its 10th straight victory. The Tar Heels advanced to Sunday's championship to play third-seeded Clemson, which beat No. 7 Duke 78-74, as they continue their push for a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs that could keep them in-state until the Final Four.
It was all thanks to Hansbrough, the 6-foot-9 junior who has climbed the school's career scoring list while serving as the driving force behind the Tar Heels' national-title aspirations.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
"He definitely finds the ball, no doubt about that," said Marcus Ginyard, who had 10 points for North Carolina. "It's never surprising. From the first day I saw him play, I could tell that you've got to get used to expecting stuff like that out of Tyler. It's amazing really to play with somebody that fights so hard and wants to win so bad."
The Tar Heels rallied from an eight-point deficit in the second half before getting the ball with 21 seconds left in a tie game. Ty Lawson drove in for a runner that bounced off the rim, but Virginia Tech's A.D. Vassallo and Jeff Allen couldn't bring in the rebound.
Hansbrough raced over to the right side and grabbed the ball.
"I just caught it and let if fly," Hansbrough said.
It swished through the net, sending the ACC's player of the year running downcourt furiously pumping his fists.
"I'm not going to lie," he said of the celebration. "I kind of overdid it."
Vassallo, meanwhile, walked slowly back to midcourt with his jersey bulled up over his face as the Hokies called a timeout. Virginia Tech's final chance ended when Deon Thompson batted Malcolm Delaney's inbounds pass from the baseline as time expired.
"They missed a tough shot that we made them take and we didn't have the strength I guess to grab the ball," said Vassallo, who had 17 points. "Hansbrough did a great job following the ball like he always (does). He goes for the ball every single time he's on the floor. He made a great play. That's your player of the year."
The fourth-seeded Hokies (19-13) watched a possible NCAA bid-clinching win painfully slip away with the loss, dropping them to 1-5 against the other members of the ACC's top five this year.
"Anyone who watched that game that knows anything about basketball, if you don't think this team is one of the top 65 teams in the country, you're certifiably insane," Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg said. "Because I don't know who else could come into this environment, basically play a road game, and play those guys the way we just played them. The only thing we didn't do is win the game."
Wayne Ellington had 15 points, including a pair of key 3-pointers and two free throws in the final 3 1/2 minutes for North Carolina, which survived despite shooting just 40 percent against Virginia Tech's tough defense.
It was a completely different game than the last matchup, which the Tar Heels won 92-53 in Chapel Hill. In that game, North Carolina held Virginia Tech to 26 percent shooting, took a 54-24 rebounding advantage and led by as many as 47 points.
This time, the Hokies led by eight points in the first half before heading to the locker room tied, then pushed ahead again by eight with about 13 minutes left. North Carolina, which came in averaging 89 points per game, finished with its second-lowest scoring output of the year.