Commentary

Defensive stopper can't stop Ellington

Originally Published: April 6, 2009
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

DETROIT -- Before North Carolina played Michigan State in Monday night's national championship game at Ford Field, Michigan State's Travis Walton offered Tar Heels guard Wayne Ellington a preview of what was about to happen.

"Man, I'm going to shut you down!" Walton told Ellington. "You're going to get nothing!"

Walton, a senior from Lima, Ohio, had reason to be confident. He had earned the reputation of a defensive stopper in the NCAA tournament.

[+] EnlargeWayne Ellington
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesWayne Ellington scored 17 of his 19 points in the first half as the Tar Heels jumped out to a 21-point halftime lead.

In the Spartans' 64-52 upset of No. 1 seed Louisville in the Midwest Regional final in Indianapolis, Walton held Cardinals star Terrence Williams to only five points on 1-for-7 shooting. When Michigan State took on No. 1 seed Connecticut in the national semifinals Saturday night, Huskies star A.J. Price scored 15 points, but Walton hounded him into 5-for-20 shooting in the Spartans' 82-73 victory.

Ellington, who averaged 19.2 points in UNC's first five NCAA tournament games, was supposed to be Walton's next victim.

"I was talking a little trash to Walton," Ellington said. "He was telling me he was going to shut me down."

Instead, Ellington turned the first half of North Carolina's 89-72 rout into his personal shooting display. In the first 20 minutes, Ellington scored 17 points on 7-for-9 shooting, making each of his three 3-point attempts. He finished with 19 points and four rebounds and was named Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four.

"I just took on the challenge," Ellington said. "He's a great defender. He was there. He was in my face. I just saw a pretty big basket tonight in the first half. It felt like I was throwing rocks into the ocean."

Earlier this season, though, it seemed as though Ellington couldn't even throw it into the ocean.

In each of the Tar Heels' first two ACC games, Ellington went 2-for-7 on 3-pointers. Not so coincidentally, the Tar Heels lost both those games, falling to Boston College 85-78 at home on Jan. 4 and at Wake Forest 92-89 on Jan. 11. It was UNC's first 0-2 start in ACC play since 1996-97.

"Early in the season, my shot wasn't falling the way I wanted it to," Ellington said. "I just stuck with it, fought through it. It came back to me. It feels good. It shows this hard work pays off."

Ellington's shot couldn't have come back at a better time for the Tar Heels. He scored 19 or more points in five of North Carolina's six NCAA tournament games. Ellington had 25 against Radford in the first round, 23 against LSU in the second and 20 against Villanova in Saturday night's national semifinals.

"This is great," Ellington said. "This is what we came back to do. We came back to work hard and see what we could do."

Ellington was at his best against Michigan State. He scored seven points in the first 5 1/2 minutes, helping the Tar Heels take a 21-7 lead with 14:26 to go. Later, with UNC leading by 18 points late in the first half, Ellington scored the Tar Heels' next eight points to help give them a 24-point cushion.

"He's a great player," Walton said. "He comes off screens hard. He gave you different looks. He stayed low to the ground. He's long. He exploded. He's got one speed, and it's going hard all the time -- even if he's missing shots. I watched film of him, and I was kind of surprised when he wasn't playing as well, he was still going hard, elevating on his jump shot. When he was in his hot streak, it's tough to guard a player like that. Today was his night."

And this was North Carolina's season.

Last year, after the Tar Heels were routed by eventual national champion Kansas 84-66 in the national semifinals of the 2008 Final Four, Ellington and fellow UNC stars Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson and Danny Green each weighed whether to return to school or enter the NBA draft as underclassmen. Ellington averaged 16.6 points and 4.5 rebounds as a sophomore in 2007-08.

[+] EnlargeWayne Ellington & Roy Williams
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesAs Roy Williams was presented with the trophy, Ellington did not hide his emotions.

The quartet decided to return to North Carolina for another season. Together, they helped the Tar Heels win the program's fifth NCAA championship.

"This is the best decision that I ever made in my life," Ellington said. "To experience this with my teammates and to be here, national champions, it is all worth it."

After Monday night's game ended, Ellington was perhaps the most emotional UNC player on the podium at midcourt. When the Tar Heels were presented with the national championship trophy, Ellington's eyes filled with tears.

"Just how hard we worked, all the stuff we've been through as a group," Ellington said. "Our seniors, mainly we wanted to do it for those guys. They've been through so much. We had a lot of adversity this year. We lost two games, and everybody doubted us. It just felt great. It's a feeling that you really can't explain unless you experience it."

Ellington isn't sure whether he'll go back to North Carolina for his senior season and try to do it again. Hansbrough, a four-time All-American, is a senior and won't be back. Neither will starting forward Green, another senior. Lawson, a junior, also is expected to enter the NBA draft.

So Ellington isn't sure whether he'll come back and help the Tar Heels win it again.

"We haven't thought about anything yet," Ellington said. "We're just enjoying the crap out of this."

The Tar Heels have certainly earned it.

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

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