Final Four: Experienced UNC faces challenges in title game
By Aaron Beard
DETROIT ó Less than 12 hours after beating Villanova in the Final Four, Wayne Ellington and some North Carolina teammates chatted over breakfast Sunday about what it was like to play in front of 70,000 fans at Ford Field.
Their reaction was typical of a veteran team making its return to college basketball’s biggest stage.
“It felt like it was another game for us,” Ellington said. “It didn’t even feel like we were at the Final Four. I think that’s good for us. We’re not out here shocked. We’re out here focused and playing our style of basketball and just having fun.”
That been-there, done-that confidence is about to be tested.
Sure, they’ve won four straight years at Duke’s famously hostile Cameron Indoor Stadium. They’ve won ACC tournaments, played under the weight of No. 1 rankings and met expectations by returning to the Final Four for a second consecutive season.
But a title game? That’s something new.
“I think just because it’s a national championship game, you’re going to be a little bit more excited and maybe a little bit more nervous,” junior Deon Thompson said. “But once the ball is tipped everybody on the bench and in the game will be ready to play.”
Although that’s probably true, neither the Tar Heels (33-4) nor Michigan State (31-6) know for sure. And that undermines one of North Carolina’s biggest advantages on opponents all year ó the experience that has come through steady team building after the 2005 NCAA title.
The senior class of Tyler Hansbrough, Danny Green, Bobby Frasor and Michael Copeland has helped the Tar Heels to 123 wins and became the program’s foundation after the ’05 team lost its top seven scorers to graduation or the NBA. The next class brought in Ellington, Thompson, point guard Ty Lawson and one-and-done rookie Brandan Wright, a talented but unproven group that pushed to the NCAA tournament’s East Regional final in 2007.
That run ended with an amazing collapse as North Carolina missed 22 of 23 shots over a 15-minute span, blowing a double-digit lead in a 96-84 overtime loss to Georgetown.
The memory of that late-game fade drove last year’s squad. Hansbrough earned national player of the year honors as he guided the Tar Heels to a school-record 36 wins and a trip to the Final Four in San Antonio. But their season again ended with a stunning collapse, this time falling behind to Kansas 40-12 in the first half before losing 84-66.
Another year, another step.
The Tar Heels had little trouble with the Wildcats on Saturday, leading most of the game by double figures before winning 83-69 to set up a rematch against the Spartans in tonight’s championship game. Michigan State, which will have a home-state crowd behind it, lost the first meeting by 35 points here in December.
“It is a new animal obviously,” assistant coach C.B. McGrath said. “Nobody on that court has played for a national championship. But we’ve got a lot of experience, and we’ve done almost everything else that you can fall back on that. Nothing will prepare you, but you’ve got to let them just sit back and relax and realize it’s just basketball.
“They’re playing another game, one of however many they’ve played in their career. They’ve just got to go out and do what they can do. They don’t have to play better than they know how. They’ve just got to play to their potential.”
During the past two seasons, the Tar Heels have won 21 of 23 road games and 20 of 22 games on neutral courts. And the Tar Heels are the first team since Duke in 2001 to reach the title game after beating their tournament opponents by at least double digits each time. North Carolina beat Radford 101-58, LSU 84-70, Gonzaga 98-77, Oklahoma 72-60 and Villanova 83-69.
The players figure they don’t have to worry about anything other than putting together one more strong performance.
“I feel like a Final Four and a championship (game) are the same thing,” Lawson said. “You’re in the same arena and playing on the same court. I feel like since we’ve already played on this court, it won’t be that big of a difference. It’s just another game.”