The Runnin' Bulldogs (0-1) got 13 points each from Max Landis and Donta Harper and 10 points from center Mike Byron. Gardner-Webb got out of the gate in great shape, jumping out to a 13-12 lead seven minutes into the game.
North Carolina's Joel James sparked a 6-0 run from there to put the Tar Heels up 20-14, and the bigger front line helped power the hosts to a 38-26 lead at intermission.
Gardner-Webb kept battling, however, playing aggressively throughout the second half on both ends of the court to stay within striking distance. The Runnin' Bulldogs fell behind by 18 points midway through the second half, but Harper and freshman Isaiah Ivey helped spark a run that allowed the Runnin' Bulldogs to pull within nine points on an Ivey three ball with 4:55 left - making the score 63-54.
North Carolina went to the offensive glass hard to power an 8-0 run that put the game out of reach down the stretch.
"I think our guys can take some confidence in the fact that they stayed with it," said GWU head coach Chris Holtmann. "We talked to them about hitting singles in the second half. We want to hit singles and we want to win the four-minute battles that you have in the second half. We want to continue to chip away at it. I think we had good discipline, better shot discipline in the second half.
"We just played a little bit better in the second half and stayed with it. I'm proud of our guys for that."
Gardner-Webb was effective on the defensive end in a variety of areas, blocking five shots and forcing 18 turnovers (11 steals). Gardner-Webb shot 46.2 percent in the second half and 40.0 percent (22-of-55) for the game - knocking down just 6-of-22 from long distance.
Landis had the hottest hand from the perimeter, scoring nine of his 13 points in the first half and finishing 3-of-7 from long distance. Harper had 11 of his 13 points in the second half, hitting 4-of-6 shots with a pair of highlight-reel dunks. Harper added two blocked shots and two steals defensively.
Byron scored six of Gardner-Webb's first eight points, using a variety of nice post moves and showing off an improved jump hook against a tall Tar Heels' front line. Kevin Hartley scored five points and pulled down 10 rebounds before fouling out and Ivey came off the bench to pour in five quick points on 2-of-2 shooting in the second half.
North Carolina got 26 points and 14 rebounds from All-America candidate James Michael McAdoo, who had eight of the Tar Heels' 22 offensive caroms. Senior Dexter Strickland added 13 points and three steals.
The Tar Heels shot 46.5 percent for the game (33-of-71), but made just 1-of-12 three-point buckets.
Gardner-Webb will turnaround quickly for its next game, hosting Covenant (Ga.) College at 7:30 pm Saturday night in Paul Porter Arena. The game will air on the Big South Network and WGWG-FM (88.3 / wgwg.org).