- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 30, 2008

CHARLOTTE, N.C. Louisville coach Rick Pitino jokingly offered to move last night’s NCAA tournament East regional final against North Carolina off Tobacco Road to the friendlier confines of Freedom Hall.

It was a deal the top-seeded Tar Heels wisely wouldn’t have wanted any part of.

With the raucous approval of thousands of Carolina blue-clad partisans, the Tar Heels upended the third-seeded Cardinals 83-73 at Charlotte Bobcats Arena to earn their second Final Four appearance in four years.

Tyler Hansbrough, the regional’s most outstanding player, had 28 points and 13 rebounds and Wayne Ellington added 13 points for North Carolina (36-2), which did not author a fourth dominant performance in the postseason but still managed to outlast Jerry Smith (17 points) and the Cardinals (27-9).

It just takes those past experiences away, said Hansbrough, who scored 14 of UNC’s final 27 points. At the same time, we want to accomplish more. Marcus [Ginyard] was just saying to me ‘It feels like we did something big, but we feel we can do something better.’

North Carolina will meet either Kansas or Davidson, who meet in today’s Midwest regional final, in Saturday’s national semifinals.

The story line in either case will be compelling Tar Heels coach Roy Williams’ first showdown with the Jayhawks since bolting Lawrence for his alma mater five years ago, or a second meeting with Stephen Curry and the efficient Wildcats.

But for UNC, the best part is it must no longer hear constant chirping about a season ago.

It was in the East regional final last year when the loaded Tar Heels inexplicably melted down in the second half against Georgetown, shooting 1-for-23 during one stretch to permit the Hoyas to rally from a 11-point lead in the second half. It was a galling display that prevented the deepest and arguably most talented team in the tournament from advancing to the Final Four.

The collapse never seemed too far out of mind. Ginyard pinned a box score from the Tar Heels’ 2006 tournament loss to George Mason and a picture of last year’s defeat in his locker, a reminder of this group’s unfinished business in upholding the North Carolina tradition.

It was in the back of a lot of our minds, Hansbrough said. The difference [is] this year we handled that run better and stayed poised and came back and got some points and fought back and eventually we had a run.

Perhaps now those tattered sheets of paper can be removed after last night’s win over the Cardinals, who were arguably the most impressive team in the tournament’s first three rounds other than the Tar Heels, who entered with a 30.3-point average victory margin.

So it was no surprise the crowd was collectively quite satisfied with a 44-32 halftime lead for the Tar Heels, a margin that felt even larger despite the Cardinals’ solid shooting. There was a sense another blowout was in the offing, and it would only be a matter of time before UNC would be snipping twine in this NBA arena for the second time in three weeks.

Except the Cardinals didn’t make it easy. In keeping with its season-long trajectory a sound start, a rough patch about a third of the way through and an impressive finish Louisville set to work erasing all of its deficits.

It took until 10:21 remained when the Cardinals tied it 59-59 when Earl Clark split a pair of foul shots. It was then the Tar Heels turned to Hansbrough, the dogged junior player of the year candidate, to bail them out of their first tight game of the tournament.

He rattled off seven straight points over the next four minutes, single-handedly fending off the Cardinals while helping to keep Louisville center David Padgett (six points) in check. It bought enough time for North Carolina to find other scoring sources notably point guard Ty Lawson, whose 3-pointer with 5:08 left bumped the lead to 71-64.

It was at this juncture the Tar Heels fully proved they were past last year’s regional final foibles. Rather than chuck shots up with abandon, they wisely prodded the Cardinals until finding a decent opportunity. Rather than fumble away possessions, it was North Carolina that forced turnovers down the stretch.

And above else, the Tar Heels made sure Hansbrough had the critical shots in the closing possessions. In the loss to Georgetown, Hansbrough attempted only three field goals in the final 13 minutes of regulation.

Last night, it was his pair of perimeter jumpers with a waning shot clock on consecutive possessions that extended the lead to 75-66 and added an extra week to the Tar Heels’ season.

Tyler Hansbrough made two shots that you pray that they’re going to take, Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. It just shows you what an All-American he is to make those shots. I was following the flight of the ball and he couldn’t even see the basket. … Some pro team is going to be very lucky because I haven’t seen a guy play every possession in a long time. I’ve never seen it, actually.

The rest of the country will get an extended look next weekend in San Antonio, a shift in venue the Tar Heels will gladly accept.

Last night at Charlotte (N.C.) Bobcats Arena

Chances are, Louisville forward Terrence Williams received some phone calls before last night’s game.

He got plenty before Thursday’s regional semifinals, with good results.

Consider Williams part of a Seattle basketball mafia, a group of players from the Pacific Northwest city who remain tight.

“I got so many phone calls [Thursday] night — Jamal Crawford, Brandon Roy, Nate Robinson,” Williams said. “I got calls before the game, them telling me how bad I [stink]. They know if we tell each other that we [stink], then we play harder.”

There was a certain irony in those comments not lost on Williams; both Crawford and Robinson play for New York, which is 20-52 and again safely ensconced near the bottom of the Eastern Conference.

“I tell Nate and Jamal, ‘You say that I [stink]? The Knicks won like eight games this year. How do I [stink]? You guys [stink],’ ” Williams said. “And they’re like ‘Well, we get paid, though.’ I was like ‘Yeah, throw that in my face.’ ”

At that point, one wiseacre asked just where the dysfunctional Knicks would finish in the Big East.

“Probably like third,” Williams said. “[Behind] Louisville and Georgetown, like third.”

That remark should get his phone ringing again.

BY THE NUMBERS

2 Coaches to take two different schools to multiple Final Fours. Roy Williams (Kansas and North Carolina) joined Jack Gardner (Kansas State and Utah) as the only coaches to pull off the feat.

17 Final Four appearances for North Carolina, which advanced to the last weekend of the season for the eighth time since 1991 with a victory last night.

3-10 Record for Louisville against No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament. The Cardinals have lost six of their last seven games against top seeds, the lone victory coming over Washington in 2005.

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