- The Washington Times - Friday, March 28, 2008

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — There was a fairly unusual occurrence in the East regional semifinals last night: Tyler Hansbrough was held in check for a half.

North Carolina, however, avoided an even less common event — a loss.

The top-seeded Tar Heels shrugged off a rare slow start from their star center and blitzed fourth-seeded Washington State 68-47 at Charlotte Bobcats Arena to advance to a regional final meeting with second-seeded Tennessee or third-seeded Louisville.

Hansbrough recovered in time to score 18 points, and Danny Green added 15 off the bench for the Tar Heels (35-2), who set a school record for victories in a season and advanced to a regional final for the third time in four years.

There was little question North Carolina possessed a surplus of both talent and athleticism over Washington State (26-9), a recent arrival on the national scene after years as a Pac-10 doormat. But the Cougars stifled Hansbrough early on.

“I told him you’ve got good shots, just relax and don’t pressure yourself — just play the way you’ve been playing all year long,” coach Roy Williams said.

Hansbrough heeded the advice, and the more familiar Psycho T emerged after the break ready to pound a Washington State team already down double digits despite his sluggishness.

The Tar Heels did not apply the blunt force witnessed in their routs of Mount St. Mary’s and Arkansas, bludgeonings that prompted musings whether this weekend might be part of a North Carolina coronation.

The Cougars exhibited a bit more pluck than North Carolina’s opening weekend fodder, reining in the tempo for much of the first half and pulling within 15-14 with nine minutes left in the half.

But a funny thing happened to the defensive black hole that held two opponents last week to a combined 81 points: Washington State itself encountered a particularly nasty defense.

The Cougars endured a 5-for-23 (21.7 percent) swoon from the field, a dry spell that more than allowed the Tar Heels to survive Hansbrough’s early struggles and build a 35-21 halftime lead accentuated by Ty Lawson’s 3-pointer in the closing seconds.

“It was a grind-it-out type game,” Lawson said. “They play really good defense. We had to make tough shots to score.”

Hansbrough awoke soon enough, scoring North Carolina’s first eight points of the second half to ensure his first single-digit night since last year’s NCAA tournament would have to wait for another time.

So too would Washington State’s first trip to the final eight since 1941, when only eight teams earned NCAA berths. It was a deflating denouement for seniors Robbie Cowgill, Derrick Low and Kyle Weaver, the on-court architects of the Cougars’ renaissance.

There were some particularly frustrating moments for Weaver, the versatile swingman who had the misfortune of contending with Marcus Ginyard and Green pestering him for much of his 10-point night (3-for-13 from the floor).

The Ginyard-Green pairing toiled with subtlety; on consecutive Cougars possessions, Weaver lofted shots only to watch North Carolina reserve Alex Stepheson demonstratively swat them well beyond the baseline.

“It was freezing out there,” Weaver said. “I thought we had a lot of good looks offensively. We drove and kicked a few times. It just wouldn’t go down for us tonight, even inside.”

The end for the Cougars’ veterans meant the continuation of a march for the Tar Heels, one already drawing comparisons to their 2005 national title team. That group survived a pair of tight games in the regional weekend before collecting its championship.

Halfway to a crown of their own, these Tar Heels have yet to encounter any such difficulties — handling quiet nights by vital contributors with aplomb and winning their first three games by an average of 30.3 points.

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