And, for about 30 minutes at North Carolina Wednesday night, Ohio State showed why it was voted the No. 1 team in the country in this week's ESPN/USA Today coaches poll.
But, ultimately, UNC's edge in height and depth – not to mention its homecourt advantage -- wore the Buckeyes down. The Tar Heels went on a decisive 15-2 run midway through the second half and rallied for a 98-89 win before 21,750 at the Dean Smith Center and a national television audience on ESPN.
Ohio State (6-1) came into the game ranked No. 1 in the coaches poll – their first No. 1 ranking of any kind since the end of the 1961-62 season. (The Buckeyes were ranked third in this week's Associated Press poll.) North Carolina (5-1), meanwhile, was rated sixth in the coaches poll and seventh in the AP poll.
"That was a high level basketball game," said OSU coach Thad Matta, whose team ventured outside Columbus for the first time this season. "When you get into a game like that, guys are going to make plays. Quite honestly, North Carolina made more plays than we made to win the game.
"We will look at this and we will find ways to get better."
Tyler Hansbrough, UNC's talented 6-9 center, led the Tar Heels with 21 points and 14 rebounds. Wayne Ellington added 19 points, while Ty Lawson had 13 and Brandan Wright added 11.
"That was a heck of a basketball game," said UNC coach Roy Williams. "As a coach sitting over there, you just marvel at the level the kids are playing at offensively."
Ron Lewis led the Buckeyes with an OSU career-high 30 points, hitting on 11 of 16 shots from the floor. Ivan Harris hit 5 of 8 threes on his way to a 17-point game.
"This was a game everybody was looking forward to," Harris said. "It was a tough game for us. But we just have to look forward to the next game."
Daequan Cook added 14 points and nine rebounds for the Buckeyes. Mike Conley Jr. added eight points and assists, while David Lighty also had eight points.
The Buckeyes connected on 52.3 percent of their shots from the floor (34 of 65), including 50 percent on three-pointers (13 of 26). But they committed 15 turnovers and watched as UNC blistered the nets to the tune of 65.5 percent (19 of 29) in the second half.
This is a game where the Buckeyes could have used 7-0 freshman center Greg Oden, who is still expected to be out several more weeks as he mends his surgically repaired right wrist. Hansbrough and Wright keyed the second-half surge and North Carolina hammered Ohio State 41-27 on the boards.
"Where they got us tonight are some areas where (Oden) is going to help us," Matta said. "You don't ever like to lose. But as a barometer, I think this showed that we can play. We'll be better the next time we take the floor. When you are building a team like we're trying to do, you just look at it and you continue to build."
Ohio State twice led by as many as 10 points in the first half as they came out of the gates on fire. The Buckeyes hit five of their first six shots from the floor and ended up 8 of 13 on three-point shots in the first half as they took a 48-44 lead.
OSU scored the game's first four points as Conley lobbed an inbounds alley oop pass to Othello Hunter and Lewis went down the baseline and made a driving bank shot. Harris hit a three from the top of the key for a 7-2 lead.
The margin bulged to 12-4 after Conley made a driving layup and Lewis completed a three-point play off a feed from Jamar Butler.
Back-to-back treys by Cook and Lighty pushed the advantage to 22-13 with 14:03 left in the first half.
UNC rallied with six straight points, capped by a layup from Deon Thompson, to trim the gap to 22-19.
But Ohio State answered with an 11-4 run to nab its first 10-point advantage. Lewis had a three off a feed from Butler, Cook tallied a one-hand jam off a pass from Conley and Cook then made an off-balance foul line jumper to beat the shot clock as OSU went ahead 33-23 with 7:34 left in the half. OSU led by 10 again moments later after Lewis' driving layup gave the Buckeyes a 35-25 lead with 7:01 left in the half.
North Carolina began to chip away, scoring five straight points – including four from Marcus Ginyard – to cut the lead to 35-30 with 5:47 left in the half.
UNC used a trey by Bobby Frasor and, after a turnover by Lewis, a dunk by Hansbrough to trim the gap to 40-38 with 4:20 left in the half.
But treys by Lighty and Butler and an alley oop from Cook to Lewis helped OSU go up 48-42 with 1:09 left. UNC's Wes Miller capped the scoring in the half with a rebound basket with 39 seconds left.
Ohio State watched UNC reel off the first nine points of the second half to take a 53-48 lead. Hansbrough had four points during that run, which Ellington capped with a three-pointer with 16:37 left. The Buckeyes missed their first four shots of the half and Lewis had a charge, opening the door for the Tar Heels to surge ahead.
But the Buckeyes battled back with an 18-7 run, keyed by five points from Lewis and three straight three-pointers by Harris, to go back up 66-60 with 12:13 left.
"I was just trying to get my team involved," Harris said. "We were down and I was just trying to get my team going."
However, this is where North Carolina countered with its decisive 15-2 run to take the lead for good. The Tar Heels took control by pounding the ball inside, while OSU missed seven straight shots. Wright made a hook inside, Hansbrough beat a double team with a spinning hook and Hansbrough completed a three-point play after he powered the ball through traffic. Finally, Reyshawn Terry stepped up and drilled a three to cap the run and put UNC ahead 75-68 with 7:27 left.
"Hansbrough is a pretty good player," Harris said. "He is very explosive down low. He hit those shots and hurt us."
Matta saw his young team get a little scattery on offense in the second half.
"They extended out their pressure," Matta said. "They are long athletically and they have fresh bodies that just keep coming at you all the time. They did a great job of challenging our shots. Their big guys were active and we couldn't put the ball in the basket."
The Tar Heels kept the pressure on as Ellington buried a trey and Hansbrough added a driving layup for an 80-70 lead with 6:33 left. After Lewis had a driving layup for OSU, the Buckeyes had a chance to cut it to six. But Ellington picked off an errant Harris pass and went coast-to-coast for the layup and an 82-72 lead with 5:43 left.
The roof came off the Smith Center at 4:43 as Lawson buried an 18-foot jumper to beat the shot clock and put the Tar Heels ahead 84-72. Ohio State rallied and got as close as five at 88-83 after Harris hit a three off a pass from Conley with 1:54 left.
But Lawson made a pair of free throws with 1:46 left and, after Cook threw a pass away, Ellington got another breakaway layup and was fouled by Lewis. His free throw gave UNC a commanding 93-83 edge with 1:22 left.
OSU again got as close as five after a layup by Cook and, after a free throw by Lawson, two free throws from Conley. That cut the lead to 94-89 with 26.5 seconds left. However, Hansbrough iced it with two free throws with 23.9 seconds left. Terry capped it with one more free throw after an OSU turnover.
Ultimately, Matta looked at the game as a missed opportunity.
"Our guys, we felt, with the game plan we had, we had a shot to win the game," he said. "We knew we were going to have to make some shots. We knew we would have to do a good job on their inside guys and we could not foul.
"I told the guys before the game, ‘This is going to be one hell of a basketball game.' I thought one team would hit 100 points. I was hoping it would be us. That, to me, was college basketball right there. That environment and the plays that were made … that was exciting."
* Lewis notched his college career-high of 34 points against Urbana in November 2003. That was while he was playing as a sophomore at Bowling Green.
* Late in the game, Williams was visibly upset and asked the public address announcer to make an announcement to stop an "Overrated!" chant at Ohio State.
"This is North Carolina," Williams declared. "We don't do that crap. We're not going to do that. That is a sorry chant. There is no place for it in college athletics. I've heard it before and it makes me want to beat their butts even more the next time."
* Williams was also effusive in his praise of Matta.
"Thad Matta is a true gentleman and a big-time coach," Williams said. "They've got a big-time team. When Greg Oden gets back and playing for them, they're going to be a heck of a basketball team.
"He's got their program to an elite level in college basketball and I think he's going to keep it there. We feel very fortunate."
* The ACC won the Challenge with the Big Ten for the eighth straight year, winning eight of the 11 games. The Big Ten's only winners in this year's event were Purdue (over Virginia), Wisconsin (over Florida State) and Northwestern (over Miami, Fla.). The ACC held a 4-2 advantage coming into Wednesday, but then put it away with a 4-1 showing.
* OSU is now 2-4 all-time in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge with home wins over N.C. State in 2001 and Virginia Tech last year and losses to Duke (2002), Georgia Tech (2003) and Clemson (2004).
* Williams is now 3-0 against Ohio State. He led Kansas to back-to-back wins over Ohio State in the 1999-2000 and 2000-01 seasons.
* OSU is now 33-24 all-time against ACC teams, including 2-8 against UNC. The teams had not met since OSU dropped back-to-back games to UNC in the 1992-93 and 1993-94 seasons.
* OSU is now 45-37 all-time when playing in a game where both teams are ranked.
* The Buckeyes host Vaparaiso (2-3) at 4 p.m. Saturday at Value City Arena. The game time for that game was moved from an originally listed 8 p.m. start.