Commentary

UNC stunned as Kansas outplays the Heels

Originally Published: April 6, 2008
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

SAN ANTONIO -- North Carolina coach Roy Williams tried his best to blame himself for the startling 18-point loss to Kansas.

He said that maybe the stunning 28-point deficit in the first half and eventual 84-66 loss in the national semifinals were his fault.

[+] EnlargeRoy Williams
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyRoy Williams took the blame for his team's stunning early deficit and eventual loss to Kansas in Saturday's national semifinal.

Williams said that he "apologized to them [the players] because in some way, somehow I didn't have our team ready to play as well as Bill [Self] did. That's not easy to say."

But is that really true? Why can't it simply be that North Carolina didn't play well Saturday night: a season-low seven assists, the first loss away from home this season, a season-low 27 first-half points and a season-high 17-point halftime deficit. Why can't it be that for at most the second time this season -- Maryland might have been the other -- the Tar Heels simply panicked, were a bit lost and didn't close out a game the way they had all season?

"It probably could," Williams said upon reflecting on the question. "I don't want my kids to accept all the blame. And as a coach, I just think sometimes that we've got to take a bigger bullet because nobody's got better kids than I have. Some of you know me, know me very, very well, and that is exactly the way I feel."

Williams went on to say that Kansas beat North Carolina, "but I'm a part of North Carolina and I've got to accept the blame, try to make sure that my players know that I take a bigger load of that and share it even more."

That's fine. No one would expect Williams to do anything less, really.

But the Tar Heels had no answers about how wildly inconsistent they were against a Kansas team that was scorching in the first half and playing some of the best 15 minutes of basketball Self said he has ever seen by a team he has coached.

Sophomore guard Wayne Ellington said that Kansas "hit us between the eyes."

And North Carolina never recovered completely. After falling behind by 28 points, the Tar Heels cut the deficit to four points before KU pulled away again.

The first word that I think of is frustrating. You know, you get here to the Final Four, and you feel like you've been playing good, and then we just didn't come out with the energy we needed to.

--Tyler Hansbrough

"It just hurts," Ellington said. "It just really, really hurts. I mean, we had a successful season. We did a lot of great things this year. We just fell short of one goal."

The goal for junior forward Tyler Hansbrough was obvious: He wanted to win a national title. Hansbrough started filling out his trophy case Friday by winning the U.S. Basketball Writers Association Oscar Robertson and Associated Press national player of the year awards.

But Hansbrough didn't come to San Antonio for an individual trophy. He has said on countless occasions how much he wants to hang a title banner at the Smith Center. The ACC regular-season and conference tournament championships were nice additions but nothing to get too excited about when the Heels had a realistic shot at the coveted championship.

"You know, the first word that I think of is frustrating," Hansbrough said. "You know, you get here to the Final Four, and you feel like you've been playing good, and then we just didn't come out with the energy we needed to. [It's] just frustrating."

It should be. The Tar Heels had lost only two games this season before Saturday. Sure, they were pushed against Clemson, Florida State, Boston College and Virginia Tech and against Louisville (for a few minutes) in the regional final in Charlotte. Still, although the Tar Heels weren't as dominant as Memphis over the course of the season, they did come into the NCAA tournament as the No. 1 overall seed.

[+] EnlargeTyler Hansbrough
AP Photo/Eric GayTyler Hansbrough always found Jayhawks between himself and the basket.

The expectation was to win the title -- nothing else. This was supposed to be Hansbrough's coronation with a national title to go with his player of the year honors. Instead, as Williams said after the game, he'll get together with his star forward later next week and discuss whether the junior should declare for the NBA draft. Williams likely will have the same conversation with Ellington and sophomore point Ty Lawson.

A year ago, Carolina was just as stunned, shocked, frustrated and disappointed when it blew a lead against Georgetown and lost in overtime in the Elite Eight. Hansbrough, Ellington and Lawson all chose to return for another chance at a Final Four. They got to San Antonio with the expectation that they would win the title.

The opportunity exists for them to do it again -- to make one more run -- if they all choose to put off the money that comes with a first-round selection.

Williams talked about the great ride the Tar Heels took him on this season, the 36 wins, the ACC titles, the love for this team and the character the players showed throughout the season. He mentioned how this team had no issues throughout the course of the season. The only blemishes were a few injuries, mainly the one to Lawson's ankle.

But the Tar Heels didn't play well when it mattered most. It wasn't Williams' fault, and it shouldn't be pinned on any particular Tar Heel, either. This might not be what everyone wants to hear, but it was simply a case of Kansas' playing superbly on this given night. That's it.

When Hansbrough and Ellington left the postgame podium, Williams apologized for his players' soft-spoken answers.

"The hurt they have right now is a lot," Williams said. "They're just shocked probably more than anything."

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com