By Bret Strelow
SAN ANTONIO ó Tyler Hansbrough led his North Carolina teammates through the handshake line, and he set the pace as they sprinted off the court.
The dejected players came to grips with the burden of unfulfilled expectations as they sat in their subdued Alamodome locker room.
UNC’s dream of winning the national title ended Saturday night with an 84-66 loss to Kansas. The Tar Heels (36-3) fell behind by 28 points in the first half of their Final Four matchup with the Jayhawks, who will play Memphis in the championship game of the NCAA tournament Monday night.
“We had a good year, but I don’t think anybody’s goal here was to be one of the top four teams in the country,” Hansbrough said. “It’s to be the top team. We fell short of that.
“We won the ACC regular-season title, and we won every tournament except for this one. It’s clearly frustrating because this is the one that means the most to everybody.”
Fifteen lousy minutes erased the momentum UNC had established during a 15-game winning streak.
The Tar Heels trailed 40-12 with five minutes left in the first half, and they trimmed their deficit to as few as four points. More than 11 minutes remained in the game at that point, but UNC ran out of gas.
“I guess it’s a little like that story tale about the little engine that spent so much trying to get up the hill,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “It didn’t have anything left when it got to the top.”
Kansas (36-3) still led by 19 points with 17:27 remaining, and Wayne Ellington’s transition basket capped a 17-2 run that pulled UNC within 54-50 with 11:16 remaining.
The Tar Heels trailed 64-59 after Hansbrough scored on a baseline drive with 5:42 left, and Kansas guard Sherron Collins made a 3-pointer on the next possession to start a 16-2 run that sealed UNC’s fate.
“I think we just kind of got in a panic mode and kind of forced some shots,” Hansbrough said. “Things didn’t fall our way. We just didn’t come out and play the way we should have. Plain and simple, they just beat us tonight.”
Ellington led the Tar Heels with 18 points on 8-for-21 shooting, and Hansbrough scored 17 points. Danny Green chipped in with 15 off the bench.
Deon Thompson scored to cut the Jayhawks’ edge to 15-10 with 13:35 remaining in the opening half, and Kansas responded with an 18-0 run in the next four minutes. Hansbrough hit two free throws to end the drought, and the Jayhawks scored the next seven points.
Kansas, which held a 17-5 rebounding advantage at that point, made 16 of its first 24 shots. The Tar Heels started 4-for-21, and a three-point play from Ellington ended an 0-for-13 stretch that covered nine minutes.
“We just came out too casual, thinking that something was going to happen for us,” UNC junior Marcus Ginyard said. “We weren’t ready to fight for what we really wanted this weekend.”
The Tar Heels managed to rally late in the half, putting together a 15-2 run.
Green made two 3-pointers and converted a steal into a fastbreak layup to cut the Jayhawks’ lead to 42-27, and Collins banked in a runner as time expired.
“If it had been 15, I would have felt as lucky as I ever felt in my life considering the way we played,” Williams said.
The last-second shot didn’t stop North Carolina from continuing its push, but the Tar Heels weren’t able to wipe out all of the deficit created by their dismal start.
Williams apologized to his team in the locker room, but Ginyard said the players deserved all the blame.
“Coach always gets to the point where he feels he should have done something more, could have done something different,” Ginyard said. “The worst part for me, and I think for the rest of the players, is to hear Coach come in and say he wished he could have done something better or he doesn’t think he did enough.
“Coach wasn’t out there on the court tonight getting our butts whipped. It’s the players’ responsibility.”
Contact Bret Strelow at 704-797-4258 or email@example.com.
By Bret Strelow