RALEIGH — Every time NC State got close, the North Carolina men's basketball team would go on a mini-spurt.
NC State cut the UNC lead to eight points on three occasions during the last 7:33 of the game, but could never break through thanks to the stellar inside play of the Tar Heels' Tyler Hansbrough and his post teammates.
Hansbrough scored a game-high 31 points on 12 of 17 shooting to lead the No. 5-ranked Tar Heels to a 93-76 victory Saturday in front of a sold-out crowd at the RBC Center.
North Carolina shot 56.5 percent from the field (35 of 62) to improve to 19-2 overall and 5-2 in the ACC. NC State fell to 11-8 overall and 2-5 in the conference.
"[North Carolina] comes at you," NC State coach Sidney Lowe said. "Their tempo is so good, it's enough for them to make those shots. [Danny] Green got loose and [Ty] Lawson pushed the ball up the court. They can score from different areas so you have to be solid on defense."
The post trio of Hansbrough, Deon Thompson and Ed Davis combined for 47 points in helping UNC hold a 46-16 in the paint advantage.
"Their bigs can run," Lowe said. "It gave us problems. It was a situation where we couldn't convert inside. If we had been able to get those shots, it could have slowed them down.
"UNC is big on the offensive boards. We couldn't secure the rebound. I told the guys that if you let them get a second chance, they'll be able to knock it down."
Conversely, NC State starting power forward Tracy Smith and center Ben McCauley struggled from the field combining to go 3 of 15 for seven points and eight rebounds.
"I take full responsibility for that in the post," McCauley said. "I didn't play very well. I had a bad night. I need to play better from down underneath. You take a lot from a game like this. You know what not to do and what to learn from."
North Carolina didn't have many breakout runs, but would pepper NC State with mini bursts any time the Wolfpack tried to comeback.
"In the second half, it seemed that every time they would cut the lead to eight or nine points, we would score a couple of baskets to push the lead back to dobule figures," UNC coach Roy Williams said.
NC State rode the hot three-point touch of senior shooting guard Courtney Fells, who poured in 22 points and went 4 of 8 from beyond the arc. Fells hit two-straight three-pointers and Trevor Ferguson drained a long baseline jumper to cut the North Carolina lead to 69-62 with 8:18 left.
"I was concerned for a while in the second half, though, that Fells was going to hit every single shot," Williams said. "He causes some defensive matchup problems for us."
UNC's Green made a nice drive and was fouled on the play for a big three-point play to thwart NC State's best chance in coming back. Hansbrough split a pair of free throws and Lawson had his own three-point play, and just like that, North Carolina built its lead back up to 78-63 with 6:36 left thanks to a 9-1 run.
"We got down eight and kind of got away from what we were doing," Fells said. "They got the momentum back. [UNC] did a good job of jamming our big guys and making them shoot over them.
"Those are the plays that we have to finish. I think down the stretch we had a little bit of a conditioning problem. They kept coming back at us."
NC State cut the lead to eight points again when Brandon Costner whipped the RBC Center crowd into a frenzy with an offensive rebound and basket, plus drawing the foul for the three-point play, and Dennis Horner made a pair of free throws with 5:35 left to make it 78-70.
North Carolina again responded with a game-clinching 11-2 run capped by Hansbrough draining his lone three-pointer to extend the Tar Heels' lead to 89-72 with 2:29 left. There wasn't going to be any magical finish at the RBC Center this time around.
"Every time we made a run, they made big plays," Horner said. "That is what a winning team does. We made some mistakes at the time and they capitalized on it.
"When it's North Carolina and NC State, it's one of the biggest rivalries in college basketball. Everyone gets pumped for it and it's a special occasion."
The final seconds did prove to have some drama, just not the kind either team preferred.
UNC senior guard Bobby Frasor was poised to dribble out the clock for the final eight seconds and the Tar Heels leading 91-76. However, he saw seldom-used reserve senior forward Mike Copeland break free for a scoring opportunity. Frasor used some questionable judgment and passed him the ball instead of running out the clock.
Copeland went hard to the rim and McCauley ensured that he wasn't going to score with a hard but clean foul with 1.9 seconds left. The referees did a good job of ensuring that tempors didn't flare after Copeland made a rush at McCauley. Both players were called for a technical foul and Williams sent Copeland to the locker room before the game ended. Walk-on Patrick Moody came in to shoot Copeland's free throws for the final points of the game.
"I was a little disappointed that he even went up for it," McCauley said. "I thought that was kind of disrespectful at that point. The game was over. I wish it didn't happen the way it did, but I didn't want him to get an easy dunk. To me, I thought it was unnecessary."
The Wolfpack's comeback was impressive after falling behind 54-36 with 16:45 left in the game. The Tar Heels extended their 43-31 halftime lead to 18 thanks to five points from Ellington and four from Hansbrough.
NC State responded down 18 with an 8-0 run thanks to a three-point play from point guard Farnold Degand, a bucket from Fells and a three-pointer from Costner to cut the lead to 54-44.
NC State struggle to score points inside resulted in going 11 of 26 from three-point range. Costner and Horner connected on a pair of three-pointers and scored 13 and 12 points respectively.
"We haven't been playing the way we wanted to lately," Horner said. "Coming off the big Miami win, we just wanted to come out here and prove we can play with anybody in the country."
The one-two combination of Degand and Julius Mays both performed well for NC State. Degand had 10 points, two assists and two turnovers in 26 minutes, while Mays added seven points, three assists and a turnover in 14 minutes.
Lawson finished behind Hansbrough in scoring with 16, and added five assists but committed four turnovers. Green added 14 points and Ellington had 12 for the Tar Heels.
NC State takes a break from ACC action with its last non-conference game of the season with nearby North Carolina Central coming to the RBC Center on Tuesday. The Wolfpack then travel to play at Virginia Tech on Feb. 8.
Putting the loss to UNC behind won't be easy.
"I thought our effort was tremendous," Fells said. "I thought we worked our tails off to get prepared for this game. To lose, it's tough for us. We just have to stay with it and there are a lot of ACC games left. We can turn this thing around."