Having survived the Buckeyes' best shot in the first 20 minutes of the game, the Tar Heels (6-0) went on a 20-4 second-half run and pulled away for a 66-55 victory in front of a packed house at Value City Arena.
After opening the game 0 for 6 from the field, freshman center Kosta Koufos scored in the paint to give the Buckeyes (4-2) a 39-37 lead with 16:25 remaining in the contest.
They would not score again until 5:31 remained in the game, a period of 10:54 that saw them go 0 for 17 from the floor and score just four points on foul shots. That allowed the Tar Heels to open up a 57-43 lead that was not stopped until a deep three-pointer by freshman Jon Diebler stemmed the bleeding.
"Let's be honest – Ohio State missed some shots they normally make," UNC head coach Roy Williams said. "They're a hard team to play."
Diebler's shot would spark a 10-2 run that saw the Buckeyes pull to within six points two separate times, but the Tar Heels held on for their second victory in as many years against the Buckeyes.
These two teams met in Chapel Hill one season ago also as part of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge and combined for a total of 187 points in a UNC victory. This time, offense was more difficult to come by. Neither team shot the ball particularly well, especially early. However, the Tar Heels shot 44.1 percent in the second half as they pulled away from the Buckeyes.
Starting guard Ty Lawson, who suffered a sprained right ankle in the team's 73-63 victory against BYU on Nov. 24, did not play against the Buckeyes. In his place, junior Bobby Frasor earned the starting nod and had five rebounds, three assists and one turnover but missed all five of his shots from the floor.
The decision to keep Lawson out of the lineup was made during pregame warm-ups, Williams said. His status for Saturday's game at Kentucky remains up in the air.
OSU senior forward Othello Hunter, who missed most of the team's last game with an upper respiratory infection, had a game-high 10 rebounds and six blocks – three of which came against Hansbrough.
The Tar Heels were led by sophomore guard Wayne Ellington, who had a game-high 23 points on 8 of 15 shooting. Five of his points came during the team's decisive second-half run.
"I knew just to be aggressive and attack and just make a play," he said. "I was just trying to play in the flow and knock down my open shots. That was basically it."
Junior forward Tyler Hansbrough struggled to score against OSU's 3-2 zone defense but added 13 points and a game-high 11 rebounds. Frequently matched up with OSU's 7-0 Koufos, Hansbrough helped limit Koufos to four points and three boards on just 1 of 10 shooting.
"Tyler Hansbrough is probably the best post player in the country," OSU head coach Thad Matta said. "This is one of those games where (Koufos has) got to look at it and learn."
The majority of Koufos' shots came from near the basket, an area where he has excelled this season. This time, though, he seemed like he could not get a handle on the basketball.
He was not alone on his team, however. The Buckeyes as a whole were just 19 of 70 from the floor (27.1 percent) and just 8 of 35 (22.9 percent) in the second half.
"When it went in the hole it seemed like there was a ghost in there knocking it out," said OSU senior guard Jamar Butler, who had 17 points on 6 of 22 shooting.
The game drew parallels to the Buckeyes' last defeat, a 70-47 loss suffered to Texas A&M on Nov. 23 that saw them go 14 of 58 (24.1 percent) from the field and hit just five second-half field goals.
Despite the final result, Matta said he was proud of his team's effort.
"I thought that we played with intensity and intelligence and energy," he said. "It was déjà vu to last Friday night where the ball would not go in the basket. I thought we had some real good looks at it. Guys kept fighting. They stepped up, made some tremendous plays."
Entering the game mired in a 2 for 24 shooting slump from beyond the arc, Diebler caught fire midway through the first half for the Buckeyes. Ohio's all-time leader in scoring as a freshman at Upper Sandusky, Ohio, Diebler missed his first two treys in the contest.
But with UNC holding a 21-17 lead, Diebler hit for the first time since OSU's 79-65 victory against Syracuse on Nov. 21. The jumper from the top of the circle would start a 15-8 half-closing run by the Buckeyes that was keyed by four Diebler treys, the last of which came with less than a second remaining and set the score at 32-29 OSU.
The shot banked in off the glass and sent the sellout crowd of 19,049 into a frenzy.
"I just knew time was running out," Diebler said. "I stepped up and I made it. It was good momentum going into the second half."
But it was not enough momentum to upset the top-ranked Tar Heels. Diebler finished with a team-high 19 points buoyed by a 5 for 14 performance from beyond the arc as the Buckeyes resorted to treys late in an effort to come from behind. In the first half, however, he was 4 of 8 from beyond the arc.
As a team, the Buckeyes took 33 treys and connected on 10 of them (30.3 percent). Sophomore swingman David Lighty added 10 points for OSU.
"This game right here is going to help us in March," Butler said. "I think this game will help us. I'm just proud that we didn't stop fighting. We battled through all 40 minutes."