Sunday, March 30, 2008

FINALLY FOUR

Call it redemption or relief, but after a year of wearing around last year’s Elite Exit to Georgetown after blowing a double digit lead, the North Carolina Tar Heels are headed back to the Final Four (their 17th).

They got there on the back of three-time All-American and ACC player of the year Tyler Hansbrough who had 28 points and 13 rebounds Saturday night to help the Tar Heels hold off Louisville 83-73 in the East Regional final.

The Tar Heels (36-2) advanced to play the Kansas-Davidson winner next Saturday at San Antonio, setting up a potential match up between Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams and the Jayhawks' program he left to returned to his alma mater in 2003.

Battling in a physical contest inside, Hansbrough finished 12-for-17 from the floor in 38 minutes and was named regional MVP. That included a pair of clutch jumpers over the outstretched arms of 6-11 center David Padgett as the Tar Heels desperately tried to hold their tenuous second-half lead in the final minutes. Those two late jumpers might have been the two biggest shots of the year.

Overlooked in the Psycho-T love fest was what might have been the third most important shot: Ty Lawson’s three-pointer off a called play the possession before Hansbrough’s pair of daggers. Lawson’s shot extended a four point lead to seven.

Louisville and Rick Pitino did a great job of half-time adjustments. Their 2-3 zone slowed the Tar Heels’ torrid first-half pace and neutralized Wayne Ellington and Danny Green. The Heels shot just 3of 11 (27%) from behind the arc, but 85% from the free throw line making 18 of 21.

Louisville’s second half adjustment of starting their offense at the top of the key with senior center David Padgett worked well enough to get the Cardinals back in the game, but ultimately the Tar Heels defensive stops and the Louisville’s turnovers (19) won the day for Carolina.

Last year, nobody could hit a shot when the Tar Heels needed one most against the Hoyas in a loss that had stayed with them all season. But this time, the Tar Heels played with steady poise when the third-seeded Cardinals (27-9) erased the margin and traded baskets with them in the anxious final minutes. Lawson and the Hansbrough made clutch shots to pave the way to San Anotonio.

While lots of teams are undefeated in November and December, the Tar Heels are undefeated in March. Carolina hasn’t lost since it’s February 6th defeat at the hands arch-rival Duke winning 15 in a row.

Tyler Hansbrough #50 of the North Carolina Tar Heels dunks over Juan Palacios #3 of the Louisville Cardinals during the 2008 NCAA Men's East Regional Final. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Ty Lawson #5 of the North Carolina Tar Heels runs back on defense after hitting a three-pointer in the second half as his teammates cheer against the Louisville Cardinals. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)


Louisville head coach Rick Pitino, right looks on along with the team mascot during the second half of the NCAA East Regional final. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

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