March 29, 2009

Tar Heels top Sooners to advance to Final Four

MEMPHIS, Tenn. - Tyler Hansbrough kept insisting that this game wasn't going to be about his matchup with Blake Griffin.

The North Carolina forward didn't know how right he would be.

Griffin won the statistical battle in a landslide, but it was the top-seeded Tar Heels who moved on to their second-consecutive Final Four with a 72-60 win against the No. 2 Sooners in the South Regional final.

"He's had all the accolades," point guard Ty Lawson said of Hansbrough. "Right now he wants to win a championship. That's the last thing he wants to cross off his list."

It's been on the minds of the rest of the Tar Heels, too, after their national semifinal flop against Kansas a year ago.

For them, beating Oklahoma meant more than just a trip to Detroit.

It meant a shot at redemption.

"I just felt relief," Hansbrough said. "There's been a lot of expectations on this team. It feels good to be going back."

Griffin, the likely National Player of the year, finished with 23 points and 16 rebounds after a slow start, while Hansbrough had only eight points and six boards.

"But look who's going to the Final Four," said forward Deon Thompson, who added 10 points for the Tar Heels. "He'll take his stat line and a Final Four rather than Blake's stat line and a loss."

The reason Hansbrough's statistical deficiencies in comparison to Griffin were irrelevant was because of a supporting cast that has spent all season gearing up to send UNC (32-4) to its NCAA-record 18th Final Four.

Lawson scored 19 points and dished five assists, while Danny Green hit 6 of 9 shots to score 18 points.

And even though it was the first time all season that Hansbrough and Wayne Ellington both failed to score double figures in a game, Carolina shot 51 percent in the game and an incredible 62 percent in the second half.

"Each and every one of us had an important job," Green said. "We knew we had to step up."

Job one was to shake the reputation that has dogged them all year - that they can't (or won't) play defense.

It was pretty much a given that Griffin was going to get his points. The trick was making sure they weren't easy ones and that Griffin, who is a great passer out of the post, didn't set up easy shots for his teammates on the perimeter.

Carolina's practice the day before the game ended with working on double-teaming the post and rotating the defense to make sure everyone was tightly guarded after the double.

"That carried over to the game," Bobby Frasor said. "We did that perfectly."

While freshman Willie Warren finished with 18 points, it was on 6-for-16 shooting. Tony Crocker, coming off a 28-point performance against Syracuse, had four points and none in the first half.

The Sooners (30-6) were just 2 for 19 from 3-point range and turned the ball over 16 times in the game.

And since the Oklahoma game plan revolved around getting the ball to Griffin, any time he wasn't able to get a shot, it looked like the Sooners struggled to know what to do next.

Perhaps no possessions better exemplified that than a back-to-back pair late in the first half. On the first, Oklahoma settled for a terrible look by Crocker as the shot-clock buzzer sounded, and on the second the Heels earned a shot-clock violation.

It was the defensive effort - including holding OU to a 36.4-percent shooting clip - that allowed the Heels to jump out to a 13-2 lead early and hold a 32-23 advantage at the half.

"It's pretty gratifying when we put out the energy and effort to play defense and it pays off," Frasor said. "We're not just going to outscore you."

Carolina appeared to have the game nearly salted away midway through the first half after back-to-back threes by Lawson put UNC up 15 and then an 8-0 run yielded a 61-40 lead with 7:24 to go.

But the Sooners answered with a 9-0 burst of their own thanks to turnovers on three straight possessions by the Tar Heels.

How did Carolina answer? With balance of course.

Free throws from Lawson. Free throws from Hansbrough. A bank shot from Green. Two more freebies from Ellington.

So while Griffin was the only Oklahoma player to make the South Region's five-man All-Tournament Team, three Tar Heels - Green, Hansbrough and Lawson - were on it, and Lawson was named Most Outstanding Player.

That's why when the final horn sounded, it was the Heels who were headed to Detroit and not the Sooners.

And why Hansbrough was all smiles despite statistics that wouldn't otherwise have satisfied him.

"If we win and he scores eight, he's going to be the happiest person in the gym," UNC coach Roy Williams said. "That's the way he is. He's interested in his team winning."



 

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