East Region: Top Seed Tar Heels, Hansbrough Overpower Cardinals
Sunday, March 30, 2008
CHARLOTTE, March 29 -- At precisely this stage of the NCAA basketball tournament last season, a top-seeded North Carolina team with even more talent was sent packing, fizzling in the second half against a physical Georgetown squad at New Jersey's Meadowlands.
And midway through the second half of Saturday's East Region final against Louisville, incredulous Tar Heels fans had to wonder if their beloved squad hadn't learned the all-important lesson about taking victories for granted.
After romping to a 12-point lead at halftime, North Carolina, the tournament's No. 1 overall seed, saw every bit of that margin evaporate as the defense-minded Cardinals finally found a hot shooting hand and knotted the score. But in the end, third-seeded Louisville was undone by familiar shortcomings -- turnovers and poor free throw shooting -- and, on this night, an opponent that was just too good.
North Carolina (36-2) withstood Louisville's withering full-court press to notch another impressive victory Saturday, ousting Louisville, 83-73, to advance to the Final Four in San Antonio, where they'll meet either fellow No. 1 seed Kansas or tournament darling Davidson.
The victory, which wasn't solidly in hand until point guard Ty Lawson pump-faked a three-pointer that put his team up, 71-64, with roughly one minute remaining, sends the Tar Heels to their 17th Final Four. That's a record shared only by UCLA, which secured its own Final Four berth in the opposite half of the bracket earlier in the evening.
And it nudges North Carolina Coach Roy Williams ahead of Louisville Coach Rick Pitino in terms of personal Final Fours. Williams now leads Pitino, six to five.
But the evening's star was 22-year-old Tyler Hansbrough, North Carolina's national player of the year, who scored 28 points and added 13 rebounds, producing his best when it mattered most.
"Some pro team is going to be very lucky," Pitino gushed with admiration. "I haven't seen a guy play every possession like that in a long time. I've never seen it, actually."
Louisville's loss, before a delirious, capacity crowd of 19,019 at Charlotte Bobcats Arena, was not for lack of heart or effort. The Cardinals ran themselves ragged clawing their way back into the game after turning over the ball 11 times in the first half. But their offensive prowess was no match for North Carolina, which outscored Louisville 17-9 over the final 6 minutes 20 seconds and was a perfect 8 of 8 from the free throw line in the waning minutes.
"We played exactly the way we need to play to beat them," Pitino said. "We tied it up, had a chance to win, and they overpowered us down the stretch."
The game promised to be a showdown between Hansbrough and Louisville's 6-foot-11 center David Padget. But Hansbrough held sway start to finish, asserting himself from every corner of the court. He swished jump shots from 17 feet, pounded inside for bruising layups and teamed with ace defender Marcus Ginyard to dominate the boards.
Padgett, who missed 10 games because of a broken kneecap early in the season, was hardly a factor in the first half despite his height advantage on Hansbrough. While Louisville's front court was bigger, North Carolina dominated scoring in the paint. It was a maddening proposition for Pitino, who paid dearly each time his defenders lost sight of the Tar Heels' chief outside threats, Wayne Ellington and reserve Danny Green, who combined for 20 first-half points.
The arena erupted in ear-splitting shrieks when Deon Thompson put the Heels up 31-18, and they closed the period leading 44-32.
The Cardinals (27-9) came out in the second half a changed team. They cut down on turnovers, attacked the offensive boards and got a scoring surge from guard Jerry Smith, who pulled the Cardinals within one with 11:40 remaining.
But neither Ginyard nor Williams (if the coach is to be believed) noticed when Louisville's Earl Clark hit a free throw that knotted the score at 59 with 10:21 remaining.
"Coach tells us not to look at the score and to just go out there and play," Ginyard said. "To be honest, I never saw the score tied."
Whether Hansbrough noticed the tie score is unclear. But something clicked inside, as happens with the best athletes, and he scored North Carolina's next seven points. And yes, he conceded afterward, last season's regional final loss to Georgetown was lurking in the back of his mind in the game's second half.
"We handled that better" this time, Hansbrough said. "We kept poised, and we fought back until, eventually, we had a run."