But after Jarrett Jack just barely avoided a five-second violation on the inbounds pass, he got the ball to Marvin Lewis. Lewis then found Jack, who avoided a steal attempt by David Noel, and found himself clear for a 17-foot jumper that swished the net with 1.4 seconds left on the clock.
"The defense was kind of scrambled and I just tried to find a way to get myself open," Jack said.
"Jarrett Jack improvised and bailed me out," added Tech coach Paul Hewitt.
With UNC coach Roy Williams desperately calling for a timeout, Tech's Lewis stole the ball from Rashad McCants just before the horn sounded, giving the 14th ranked Yellow Jackets (23-8) an exhilarating 83-82 victory, while Carolina fans and players stood stone-faced in disbelief.
"We felt like we covered a couple of things, but you know in basketball a lot of times broken plays are the best and big-time players have to make big-time plays on game day," Williams said. "That's what Jarrett Jack did."
Sean May had just given UNC an 82-81 lead when he made the one of two free throws with 10 seconds left, after being fouled by Luke Schenscher.
"We drew a play to try and get Isma'il (Muhammad) a lob on the basket side," Jack said.
Trailing by 11 points with 6:16 left to play, Williams called a timeout. He told his players, "If you guys want to go home tonight, then sit back if you want to do something special, then let's go out there and get this done."
"We came out of the huddle with a lot more enthusiasm and a little more bounce in our step," May said. "We just got after it."
The fifth-seeded Tar Heels (18-10) then battled back behind back-to-back three-pointers by Raymond Felton to tie the score at 77-77 at the 3:04 mark. After May rebounded a missed jump shot by B.J. Elder, Felton threaded a pass to Noel who scored on a fast break, giving Carolina its first lead since just after halftime.
Jack and May then each made good on a pair of free throws, before Clarence Moore scored inside to tie the game at 81-81, setting up May's final attempts at the line.
"Every player sits at home and dreams about making the big free throws to win the game, and I felt pretty confident going to the line," May said. "I knew as soon as the first one left my hand that it was too hard."
During a pre-game interview with UNC radio play-by-play announcer Woody Durham, Williams explained that his perceived nonchalance concerning the conference's postseason tournament was just that – perceived.
May's flattering comments concerning Tech center Luke Schenscher during a previous press conference proved prophetic, as the 7-foot-1 Australian went off for 17 points and a career-high 17 rebounds, to go with Jack's 17 points.
"I had a down game against Florida State, so I felt I had to come out in this game and prove something to myself and my teammates," Schenscher said.
"From my perspective, [Schenscher] is the most improved player in this league," Hewitt added.
Carolina shot just 39.4 percent from the floor, including 3-of-11 from three-point range, and was out-rebounded 23-15 in the second half.
May led all scorers with 27 points – just one off his career-high, McCants scored 25 and Felton added 20 in the losing effort, while five Yellow Jackets scored in double figures.
The 72 combined points by McCants, May and Felton tied an ACC Tournament record for most points scored by three players on the same team. Virginia also accomplished the feat in 1990.
"I'd like to have more balance," Williams said. "I see that Tech had five guys in double figures, and one of those guys came off the bench. The best teams I've had in the past have had great balance."
The Tar Heels forged an 11-point lead on two occasions in the first half. But trailing 28-17, the Yellow Jackets outscored UNC 25-7 over the next 6:20, before holding on for a 42-39 lead into intermission.
A baseline basket and subsequent free throw by May, quickly knotted things up again less than 30 seconds into the second half, as both teams started from scratch. But a three-pointer by Elder just before the first TV timeout pushed the Tech lead back to seven, as UNC continued to struggle in its half court set.
A three-pointer by Lewis gave the Yellow Jackets their biggest lead at 61-52 with 12:41 remaining in the game. And when Elder returned to the game following a brief injury with 10:04 left to play, it seemed apparent that the Tar Heels, out of sync for most of the second half, had not taken advantage of his absence.
Carolina, which had won four of the previous six meetings with Tech, will now have to chew on its disappointment until Sunday night when it learns its placement in the upcoming NCAA Tournament.