CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) -- Chris Smelley threw a career-high three touchdown passes in the first half and No. 7 South Carolina withstood a late rally to beat North Carolina 21-15 on Saturday.
The redshirt freshman improved to 4-0 as a starter, helping South Carolina (6-1) build a 21-3 lead through three quarters and successfully defend its first top 10 ranking since 2001.
But the Tar Heels (2-5) made things interesting late. T.J. Yates threw an 18-yard touchdown pass to Greg Little on the first play of the fourth quarter, then ran 3 yards for another score to make it a six-point game with 3:03 remaining.
The Gamecocks gave North Carolina one last chance, after Ryan Succop's 48-yard field goal bounced harmlessly off the right upright with 46 seconds left.
Yates threw three quick completions to move the Tar Heels to the South Carolina 31, but misfired on his last two throws toward the end zone, with his final pass deflected away by Kenny McKinley at about the 1.
Yates finished 22-of-42 for 285 yards against the nation's best pass defense, and Hakeem Nicks had eight receptions for 114 yards for the Tar Heels.
North Carolina had 398 total yards to South Carolina's 282, had nearly a 10-minute advantage in time of possession and stopped the Gamecocks on 12 of 13 third-down chances. But the Tar Heels couldn't overcome three interceptions - one thrown on a trick play in the fourth by quarterback-turned-receiver Joe Dailey in the red zone.
Smelley completed 17 of 26 passes for 172 yards with scoring passes to three different receivers, covering 3 yards to Dion Lecorn, 30 yards to McKinley and 12 yards to Jared Cook.
Cory Boyd rushed 20 times for 95 yards for South Carolina, helping Steve Spurrier remain unbeaten in four games against the Tar Heels. His previous three wins came when he was at Duke from 1987-89, and his last - a 41-0 rout - was memorialized with a team photo by the scoreboard, a snapshot that still hangs in his office.
The Gamecocks clicked early in jumping out to a 14-0 first-quarter lead. They scored on two straight possessions, with Smelley's 20-yard pass to Cook setting up his 3-yard strike to Lecorn.
Then, Smelley and Cook hooked up again for 23 yards one play before he found McKinley behind cornerback Jermaine Strong, and the receiver spun toward the right sideline and pulled down his team-leading sixth touchdown of the season.
South Carolina made it 21-3 at halftime when Captain Munnerlyn's 38-yard punt return in the final minutes of the half set up Smelley's scoring pass to Cook with 15 seconds left.
North Carolina's Connor Barth missed a field goal for the first time since 2005 when he pulled a 49-yard attempt wide left in the first quarter, snapping a streak of 19 straight conversions. He made a 45-yarder on his next try early in the second.
Source: ncaafootball.com; Photo Credit: SEC Sports