NCAA Tournament: UNC 83, Louisville 73
By Bret Strelow
CHARLOTTE ó North Carolina’s players marched in unison toward the closest basket, but the first celebratory steps weren’t reserved for the rungs of a nearby ladder.
House of Pain’s “Jump Around” blared from instruments held by UNC band members, and Danny Green started dancing wildly as teammates circled around him.
The Tar Heels were in Charlotte, not at home in the Smith Center. Now they’re headed to San Antonio, site of the Final Four.
Junior forward Tyler Hansbrough scored 28 points and grabbed 13 rebounds to lead top-seeded UNC to an 83-73 victory against third-seeded Louisville in the East Regional final on Saturday night at Bobcats Arena.
North Carolina, which dropped an overtime decision to Georgetown in the Elite Eight last season, needs two more wins to secure the national championship.
“It feels like we did something big,” Hansbrough said, “but we can also do something bigger.”
The Tar Heels improved their NCAA tournament record in the state to 25-1 and kept pace with UCLA by claiming their 17th Final Four appearance.
Louisville, which trailed by 12 points at halftime, pulled even with 10:21 remaining. North Carolina (36-2) regained the lead for good 23 seconds later on a layup by Hansbrough, and his clutch jump-shooting helped the Tar Heels pull away in the closing minutes.
UNC led 71-66 when Hansbrough caught a pass at the top of the key, stared down defender David Padgett, took one dribble and drilled an 18-footer with 2:30 left.
The shot clock was winding down on the Tar Heels’ next possession when Hansbrough pump-faked from the left wing, dribbled toward the corner and lofted another jumper over Padgett. The ball swished through the net for a nine-point advantage with 1:35 remaining.
“The reason he made that shot is he’s made it hundreds of times already,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “It’s like that television commercial when the young man shoots extra shots before every practice, every off-day. He’s made that shot hundreds of times.”
Hansbrough had 20 second-half points, including 16 of North Carolina’s first 22. Wayne Ellington scored 11 of his 13 points in the first half, and point guard Ty Lawson contributed 11 points to go along with nine assists.
UNC didn’t reach the national semifinals last year, when Lawson and Ellington were freshmen, because it allowed Georgetown to erase a 10-point deficit in the final seven minutes of regulation. The Tar Heels settled for jumpers and suffered defensive breakdowns during that comeback, but they handled pressure better against Louisville.
Two free throws by Padgett pulled the Cardinals (27-9) within 66-64 with 6:20 left. The Tar Heels extended their lead to seven points thanks to an inside basket by Deon Thompson and a 3-pointer from Lawson.
Louisville went 1-for-6 from the field and committed three turnovers during the five-plus minutes that followed Padgett’s free throws.
“We kept our poise, and last year we had a lot of guys that were young,” Green said. “This year you can tell there’s a big difference. Ty’s more mature, and Wayne’s more mature. Even our sophomores who are juniors now are more mature.”
The Tar Heels relied on the toughness they developed during the regular season, when they found ways to pull out close games and pushed forward despite a series of injuries.
They routed their first three tournament opponents and held firm when Louisville put a scare into the partisan crowd.
“This team has continued to show that when we need to dig deeper and play better and play harder and play smarter, we do,” UNC junior Marcus Ginyard said. “I think that shows how good this team really is.
“Every time we get into those sticky situations, we always get ourselves out. You need a team that’s going to be tough enough to not give in.”
Contact Bret Strelow at 704-797-4258 or email@example.com.