Commentary

Tar Heels cap historic run

Originally Published: February 11, 2009
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

DURHAM, N.C. -- Tyler Hansbrough sat on a chair just outside the steaming shower of the North Carolina locker room and answered questions, his face still pink and sweating from playing in the sauna that doubles as a basketball gym.

For 15 minutes, he toed the politically correct line, conveying his feelings without saying anything that could be misconstrued as bulletin board fodder.

And then a cameraman asked Hansbrough whether, now that he was done with Cameron Indoor Stadium, he might come back sometime to visit.

"C'mon man, are you crazy?" Hansbrough said. "I think I'll stay in Chapel Hill.''

Tyler Hansbrough
AP Photo/Sara D. DavisTyler Hansbrough finished his career 4-0 at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Hansbrough's work here is done.

For four years, he walked into a sweltering den of pointing fingers and jabbering mouths, the baby-faced crybaby who travels every time he touches the ball and looks like Beaker from the Muppets.

And for four years, Hansbrough walked out to the most deafening noise of all: silence.

On Wednesday night, when Hansbrough boarded the bus for his final 8-mile ride between Duke and UNC, his blue-wigged and blue-chested tormentors shuffled out quietly while he waltzed into history, standing alongside teammate Danny Green as the first classmates to go 4-0 at Cameron Indoor against Mike Krzyzewski-coached teams.

"Crickets,'' Green said. "We heard crickets. When you leave a game on the road and you hear crickets, you know you did your job.''

The 4-0 run surely will resonate longest on Tobacco Road. A good 30 minutes after the game ended, Duke senior Greg Paulus' eyes still showed the red-rimmed evidence of tears.

But on the grander scale -- and ultimately, that's the only scale by which teams down here measure themselves -- this 101-87 win did more than turn the Tar Heels into temporary custodians of the fiercest rivalry in the sport.

It delivered a resounding message to the rest of college basketball.

"They're really good. That's why people were talking about this team going undefeated,'' Krzyzewski said. "The way they played tonight, that's the team people were talking about.''

This season started with so much talk about Carolina and its impending greatness, you half expected the NCAA to call off the season and cut straight to "One Shining Moment." Would the Heels lose before February? Would they lose at all? Who could match their depth/quickness/athleticism/talent?

We all know what happened next. Boston College stunned the basketball world, and two games later, Wake Forest rocked the sport to its core. The next great team suddenly looked like the third-best team in its own conference.

The Heels slipped off the radar, or at least as much as a team wearing Carolina blue can, and while everyone fell in love with the flavor of the week -- Pittsburgh, then Wake Forest, then Duke, then Connecticut -- North Carolina quietly beat the hide off everyone. The Tar Heels won their next seven games by an average of 16.4 points.

"We had to regroup,'' guard Ty Lawson said. "We liked being under the radar. We didn't mind. We want to be the team everyone is talking about in March and April, not February.''

There is nothing like a Duke-North Carolina game to vault the winner back into the collective consciousness, particularly when it is played as this one was, a flip-flop of domination that was as stunning as it was resounding.

For a half, UNC looked like the team that started 0-2 in the ACC, its Achilles' heel defense rising up to beg all the same old questions. Duke scored every which way, shooting 62 percent from the floor and 67 percent from the arc. Jon Scheyer scored on an identical curl to the hoop at least four times, and the same Duke team that is routinely dogged for its lack of an inside game outscored the Heels in the paint 22-16 as Gerald Henderson shredded his way to the rim for 13 in the first 20 minutes.

Facing a clogged lane on the other end, the Heels couldn't feed Hansbrough. And Lawson, the guy everyone figured to be the difference-maker, took just two shots. Were it not for an out-of-nowhere effort from Bobby Frasor (he hit three 3-pointers in one half after making just 11 in UNC's previous 23 games), the 52-44 halftime deficit would have been much uglier.

"I was extremely discouraged in the first half with our defensive play,'' UNC coach Roy Williams said.

Ty Lawson
Kevin Cox/Getty ImagesTy Lawson scored 21 of his season-high 25 points in the second half.
Clearly his players concurred. The same Duke team that erupted for 52 points in the first half dropped just 35 in the second. The Heels upped not just their defensive pressure, but also their high-speed offense, which can stifle a team just as well as any defense, hanging 100 on a Duke team that prides itself on D.

Prior to this game, Duke hadn't given up more than 81 points all season. North Carolina had 81 with six minutes still to play in the game, eventually becoming the first team since 1983 to top the century mark in Cameron against a Coach K-led team (UNC did it in '95 when Krzyzewski was sidelined).

Challenged at the break, Lawson drove to the rim like a man on a mission.

He didn't care much whether it was Paulus or Nolan Smith. He was an equal-opportunity killer, scoring a team-high 25, including nine during a 14-0 UNC run that included a Hansbrough shot clock-beating 3 that all but signified the end.

It was the sort of onslaught on which the early predictions for this Carolina team were predicated, a barrage of fast-twitch motion that left Duke looking exhausted and lost.

Which is, of course, what happens when you're on the losing end of one of these games -- the inevitable questions. The Blue Devils have lost three of five, and worries of a late-season slide are starting to rise again, only compounding the agony of an 0-4 home run against the Heels.

"You come to Duke to play in these games, to win these games,'' Paulus said. "For my class, we wanted to win this last one here, but there's still a lot of season left. We have to keep getting better, and we can't hang our heads or have a lapse because of this one.''

Paulus spoke in an almost-empty Duke locker room. Most of the players had cleared out, and the media had moved on, leaving Paulus alone in a sad silence.

Across the gym in another locker room, the silence played more like sweet music.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

Dana O'Neil | email

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