Commentary

Off night for stars can't shake Heels

Originally Published: March 29, 2009
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Oklahoma held North Carolina forward Tyler Hansbrough, the leading scorer in ACC history, to only eight points.

It was just the third time in the past two seasons that Hansbrough, a four-time All-American, didn't score 10 points in a game.

The Sooners held UNC guard Wayne Ellington to only nine points, after the junior sharp-shooter averaged 22.3 points in his first three NCAA tournament games.

It was the first time this season that both Hansbrough and Ellington failed to score at least 10 points in a game.

[+] EnlargeDanny Green
Bob Donnan/US PresswireDanny Green continued his solid all-around play, hitting 6 of 9 from the field Sunday.

"If you had given me those stats before the game, I'd have thought it was going to be a tough afternoon, no question about that," UNC coach Roy Williams said.

Instead, the No. 1-seeded Tar Heels ran the No. 2-seeded Sooners off the court in a 72-60 victory in the South Regional final at FedExForum.

North Carolina will play next weekend in its NCAA-record 18th Final Four in Detroit, where it will try to win its fifth national championship and first since 2005.

And the Tar Heels' 12-point victory over the Sooners -- a game that was never very close from the opening tip -- showed why they'll be cutting down the nets in the Motor City on April 6.

"Carolina is so good," Oklahoma coach Jeff Capel said. "They're the most explosive team in the country. They're a great team. They're not a good team -- they're a great team. They have so many offensive weapons."

North Carolina is the only team in the Final Four that can absorb a so-so performance from its best player like a sponge. Hansbrough took only four shots against Oklahoma. He played only nine minutes in the first half after picking up two early personal fouls.

But Oklahoma, which has the best player in the country in sophomore Blake Griffin, still didn't have a chance.

UNC point guard Ty Lawson, who was named most outstanding player of the South Regional, scored 19 points with five assists and three steals. Senior Danny Green scored 18 points on 6-for-9 shooting, and junior forward Deon Thompson added 10 points.

They're not a good team -- they're a great team.

-- OU coach Jeff Capel on UNC

"It's a challenge guarding those guys," Capel said. "They have pros at just about every position. They're incredibly efficient. They have great players and they have great depth, and they use that. They have a hall of fame coach and eight or nine McDonald's All-Americans. They bring in pros off the bench."

North Carolina is the team to beat in Motown because it doesn't need Hansbrough to be fantastic every single game. On some nights, he can be just OK. The Tar Heels don't need Lawson knocking down 3-pointers and driving baseline to baseline at breakneck speed on every possession. On some nights, Lawson only has to manage the game and Carolina's moving parts.

"You remember in the preseason everybody was asking me how I was going to keep everybody happy?" Williams asked. "I said at that time, I'd rather have too many players than not enough. We have such good character kids, that they could handle it. You've got to have other guys. You've got to have good balance, scoring inside and scoring outside. I think it's more difficult to guard people that are like that."

And that's exactly why the Tar Heels are heading into the Final Four. When Hansbrough picked up two cheap fouls in the first half -- the first one came 50 seconds into the game when he jumped on Griffin's back -- UNC didn't miss a beat. The Heels threw three more players at Griffin, including Thompson and freshmen Ed Davis and Tyler Zeller.

Griffin, who is expected to be named national player of the year and will probably be the No. 1 pick in June's NBA draft if he forgoes his final two seasons of college eligibility, scored 23 points and grabbed 16 rebounds.

"He's a load," Williams said. "You know, please don't make this to be a comparison -- [but] he is LeBron James-like. He's got such a package of strength, explosiveness, touch, power. You know, it's hard to match that. In person when you're sitting on that bench, it even looks more awesome than it does when I'm watching it on TV."

[+] EnlargeTy Lawson
Bob Donnan/US PresswireTy Lawson scored a team high 19 points for the Tar Heels.

While the Tar Heels were willing to let Griffin record another double-double, they didn't allow his teammates to do much of anything. Guard Tony Crocker, who scored 28 points in the Sweet 16 victory over Syracuse, went 0-for-5 on 3-pointers. Freshman Willie Warren scored 18 points, but he had only four at the half and did much of his damage after the game's outcome had long been decided.

The Sooners went 2-for-19 on 3-pointers and committed 16 turnovers.

"It stinks we had a night like this with so much at stake," Capel said.

It might have stunk for the Tar Heels, too. Hansbrough had scored fewer than 10 points only twice this season. He scored eight at Florida State on Jan. 28 and eight at Miami on Feb. 15. North Carolina still won both games.

That's what separates the Tar Heels from most of the teams in college basketball, including the other three schools that will play in Detroit.

Ask Louisville what happens when Terrence Williams can't find his shooting touch. Ask Duke what happens when Gerald Henderson can't score.

Those teams don't win.

But even when Hansbrough and Ellington don't play well, the Tar Heels are still good enough to win.

And that's why North Carolina will win it all in Detroit.

"This is a dream come true," Williams said. "I think each and every year you put yourself in a position that you can be one of those teams that has a chance to win it all, and that's my dream and my goal every year. This team has dealt with a great deal of adversity. A great deal of expectation from other people. And they've got us going to Detroit, and we're excited about that."

Mark Schlabach covers college basketball and college football for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

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