ATLANTA - Without big contributions from Gani Lawal and Matt Causey, Georgia Tech wouldn't have almost upset unbeaten and No. 1-ranked North Carolina in men's basketball on Wednesday night.
In the end, it was just another tough loss for the Yellow Jackets. But it was definitely a step in the right direction for the beleaguered team and its Gwinnett County connection.
Lawal, the touted freshman from Norcross, kept Georgia Tech in the game early. Then Causey, the senior point guard from Berkmar, helped the Yellow Jackets almost steal the victory with some emotional defense after a couple of big first-half 3-pointers.
North Carolina escaped the upset, though, on Danny Green's free throw with 22.6 seconds remaining Wednesday night. The 83-82 victory at Alexander Memorial Coliseum wasn't secure until Tech's Zach Peacock missed on two chances to win the game in the closing moments.
Lawal had fouled out by then. But it was his monster first half that helped set the tone early.
The Yellow Jackets (7-9, 0-3) are the only ACC team with a losing record, but they never backed down against the powerful Tar Heels (18-0, 3-0).
The 6-foot-9 Lawal, who had been held scoreless in Georgia Tech's previous two games, opened the scoring with a resounding dunk and had 11 points by intermission.
"Gani had six offensive rebounds in the first half and we had five," North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. "I thought their big guys were kicking us in the first half."
Causey lost his starting job to freshman Mo Miller two games ago, but he gave the Yellow Jackets a big lift off the bench.
Causey had eight points in the first half, then forced a couple of big second-half turnovers by the Tar Heels.
The Yellow Jackets have struggled at point guard this season, but Causey and Miller combined for 10 assists to four turnovers while getting 15 points.
"You've seen Mo grow up and that's huge for us," Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt said. ". . . Matt also did a nice job."
Down by two at halftime, Georgia Tech jumped to a seven-point lead early in the second half. But the Yellow Jackets couldn't hold on despite their best effort of a disappointing season.
"We played with tremendous effort," Hewitt said.
"I feel for them," Williams said.
Lawal, who was part of Georgia Tech's swarming defense on All-American Tyler Hanbrough, fouled out with 5:17 remaining. He finished with 13 points and six rebounds.
At the end of the game, the 6-foot-9 Hansbrough had blood dripping from his face. But he scored 27 points - 18 in the first half - and grabbed 11 rebounds.
"Tyler was really something else," Williams said.
The Yellow Jackets had beaten North Carolina four consecutive times at home and knocked off the Tar Heels three times over an 11-month stretch in the early 1990s when UNC was ranked No. 1 each time. Georgia Tech laid another trap, but North Carolina escaped.
"I think we were lucky," Hansbrough said. ". . . It was a really, really rough game."
North Carolina seeks to remain unbeaten Saturday at home against Maryland. Georgia Tech tries to finally get an ACC win when it hosts Virginia Tech.
"Saturday has to be our turning point," Hewitt said.
"We are all really disappointed," Peacock said. "But if we can give this type of effort every single night, there is no doubt that we will start to win ball games."