- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 4, 2009

DETROIT | As North Carolina hurtled into this season as the prohibitive favorite to leave Ford Field with the championship in April, most of the discussion orbited decorated big man Tyler Hansbrough.

The senior, after all, was the returning national player of the year, a player who had rolled up stellar career statistics as he eroded opponents night after night.

But Hansbrough, for all of his accomplishments, is hardly the primary reason the Tar Heels (32-4) are in the Final Four for the second straight year - nor the best argument for why their title hopes remain strong entering Saturday’s semifinal against Villanova (30-7).

That honor lies in the backcourt, where juniors Ty Lawson - and his much-scrutinized big toe - and Wayne Ellington have propelled North Carolina within two victories of their second national title since 2005.

“I think we’ve been doing a pretty good job,” Ellington said. “[L[]awson has] been playing excellent basketball, and I think I’m having a pretty good stretch where I’m playing pretty well. I think that’s what it’s about in the postseason - great guard play.”

Lawson is averaging 20.3 points since returning from a toe injury that kept him out of the ACC tournament and North Carolina’s NCAA opener against Radford. Ellington is thriving with a 19-point average in the tournament even as others have remained more noticeable in Carolina’s constellation of stars.

Lawson has enjoyed one of the best seasons by an ACC point guard since the introduction of the shot clock, and his value to the Tar Heels was underscored when Florida State dispatched them in conference tournament semifinals. North Carolina couldn’t push the pace as it would have liked without Lawson, and it also lost a much-improved shooter.

With Lawson back, the Tar Heels have dissected LSU, Gonzaga and Oklahoma with their overwhelming offense.

“There’s no doubt he’s the engine to this team,” injured forward Marcus Ginyard said. “When Ty’s on a roll, he gets everybody else on a roll.”

It has happened frequently this season, perhaps even more than was anticipated four months ago. Lawson, always capable of pushing the tempo, turned into an on-court maestro, far more in control than in the past. In turn, Carolina’s offense rarely sputtered, hitting the 70-point plateau every game but one.

“I think he’s just more mature on the floor,” senior swingman Danny Green said. “His decision-making is better than it was last year, and of course his shooting percentage is - especially beyond the arc. It makes him really tough to guard.”

Ellington’s development wasn’t as noticeable but no less significant. Early in the season, Ellington was prone to shaky shooting nights.

That changed with a second-half flourish against Miami in mid-January. He made seven 3-pointers after halftime, spurring a run when he became a reliable third - and sometimes first or second - option in the offense.

“I just sat back and realized I had to turn my game up and I’m capable of a lot more than what I’m doing,” Ellington said.

Both Lawson and Ellington now receive a second shot at the Final Four after last year’s 84-66 loss to Kansas in the semifinals. Ellington took 21 shots in that game, and Lawson never settled in against a more experienced backcourt.

A year older and wiser, the pair again could determine the Tar Heels’ chances of claiming a title - one that seems much more likely to return to Chapel Hill than a season ago.

“It’s more experience, and we’re also shooting a lot better,” Lawson said. “It’s been a year to mature, and it’s helped us out a lot.”

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