By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 7, 2009
DETROIT, April 6 -- A journey that began with four uncommon career decisions last spring ended in a cavernous stadium Monday night, with North Carolina's four most recognizable stars rejoicing amid a downpour of confetti and before a crowd awash mostly in green and white.
All along, this celebration was considered nearly inevitable for these Tar Heels, a uniquely talented team that followed the unexpected path of a trio of Florida Gators three years earlier. While those Gators delayed NBA careers to win a second consecutive championship, four of these Tar Heels postponed professional careers in hope of winning their first title and experiencing the scene that unfolded at Ford Field late Monday.
By beating Michigan State, 89-72, in the national title game, the Tar Heels (34-4) punctuated the season with a dominating all-around performance that displayed their machine-like offense and improved defense. North Carolina, which won its fifth national championship, became the first champion since Duke in 2001 to win all six NCAA tournament games by double digits.
"Staying in school was the best decision I have ever made," North Carolina senior Tyler Hansbrough said while standing on the court as his team cut down the nets. "Say what you want. I'm a national champion. Who can say they are a national champion? I can."
To win Monday night, the Tar Heels withstood a virtual road game in which the vast majority of the national title game-record 72,922 fans, including former Michigan State star Magic Johnson, rooted for the underdog Spartans. North Carolina Coach Roy Williams, who likes to say he never lost a game to a building, never had reason to worry about capturing his second national title in five seasons.
"The first one was unbelievably sweet," Williams said. "But in some ways, this is even sweeter. People anointed us before the season and then jumped off the ship. It's an incredible feeling."
When told he has as many titles as legendary Tar Heels coach Dean Smith, Williams said, "Roy Williams and Dean Smith do not belong in the same sentence."
Point guard Ty Lawson had a championship game-record eight steals, including seven in the first half, and six assists to go along with 21 points. Guard Wayne Ellington, who earned the Final Four's most outstanding player award, made 7 of 12 shots and finished with 19 points. Hansbrough had 18 points and seven rebounds. And the other Tar Heels standout who opted to return to school, guard Danny Green, made a key three-pointer midway through the second half after Michigan State had cut the deficit to 16.
"They have four guys who looked to come out [to the NBA], and they all came back," Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo said. "I still say that is what I am most impressed about."
Detroit residents hoping to experience a Michigan State victory and a temporary catharsis for a city hit hard by the economic downturn instead witnessed a North Carolina coronation. Ten minutes into action, the Tar Heels led by 21.
"The first five minutes were a blur," Michigan State guard Travis Walton said. "They have no weaknesses. When you have [their talent], they are like an NBA team that can maybe beat the worst team in the NBA probably."
With a healthy Goran Suton in the lineup, Michigan State (31-7) was a different team than the one North Carolina pummeled by 35 points in this same venue Dec. 3. But the game was in many ways a continuation of that rout. Michigan State, which committed 14 turnovers in the first half (21 overall) faced a 21-point halftime deficit.
Izzo felt limiting North Carolina's transition offense -- its "lethal weapon" -- would be the key to the game. The Spartans needed to do what no team had done all season: stay in front of Lawson, the fastest player in the tournament. Speedy Kalin Lucas began the game on Lawson but watched the North Carolina junior penetrate at will.
Less than four minutes into action, Lawson converted a layup then retreated a few steps and tipped away an inbounds pass from Suton. Lawson flipped a pass near the basket to Deon Thompson, who was fouled and made both free throws. Ellington moments later sank a high-arcing three-pointer, one of three in the first half, to give the Tar Heels a 10-point lead.
North Carolina went on another spurt after freshman reserve Ed Davis made a basket. Lawson intercepted the inbounds pass from Draymond Green and fed guard Bobby Frasor, who missed a three-point attempt. Ellington, alone under the basket, grabbed the rebound and tossed in the putback.
Michigan State's second-half rally began with defense. The Spartans clamped down on the Tar Heels, making them miss 11 of their first 14 shots after halftime. After slowly whittling the deficit, the Spartans narrowed the gap to 13 points with a little less than five minutes remaining. At that point, tens of thousands of Michigan State fans rose to their feet, unleashing ear-splitting support for their team.
But Lawson responded with a big shot and Hansbrough took a charge to halt Michigan State's momentum. The night and the season belonged to North Carolina and the four Tar Heels who chose to return as the nucleus of one of the strongest teams assembled this decade.
"Sounds like I made a pretty good decision," Hansbrough said. "Nothing beats this feeling right here."
Box score, D4