- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 5, 2009

DETROIT | In the four years since North Carolina’s last national title, the Tar Heels have crept closer and closer to an encore for coach Roy Williams.

First it was a second-round appearance in 2006. Then a trip to the regional final. And then a Final Four visit.

Yet again, Carolina has marched a little farther, upending Villanova 83-69 on Saturday night at Ford Field in the national semifinals to close within a game of a national championship.

Ty Lawson scored 22 points, and Tyler Hansbrough - who has been on hand for the entire year-by-year buildup - had 18 points. Wayne Ellington added 20 for the Tar Heels (33-4), who will meet hometown favorite Michigan State (31-6) in Monday’s title game.

“We worked so hard all season and all year long in order to play in this game,” Ellington said. “It just feels great to get this game and be on the biggest stage in college basketball.”

Scottie Reynolds scored 17 points for the Wildcats (30-8), who lost in their first Final Four appearance since the program’s improbable 1985 title run.

Such a push from the Tar Heels was anything but unexpected. They entered the season as the prohibitive favorite to win a championship, especially with nearly all of the critical pieces back.

That meant Ellington, Lawson and Danny Green postponed their initial flirtation with the NBA to come back. And it meant Hansbrough, last season’s national player of the year, didn’t even bother to enter his name into the draft.

It was all done with Saturday night - and Monday - in mind.

A little bit of blood - which forced Hansbrough briefly from the game - was a mild obstacle along the way.

So too was East Region champ Villanova, which proved pesky in its second straight game against a No. 1 seed. But unlike Pittsburgh, which hung back and never turned back the Wildcats, North Carolina led almost the entire way.

Not that Villanova wasn’t plucky. Down nine at the half, Jay Wright’s team soon pared the deficit to 50-45, and it seemed Williams’ seventh trip to the Final Four might just end as five of the previous six did - with a loss.

But it is a different year, and the Tar Heels had won 16 of their past 17 games with Lawson in the lineup.

Make it 17 of 18 thanks to a second-half surge. Green hit a pair of 3-pointers, spurring a 15-4 run that created enough of a cushion to insulate the Tar Heels from the sort of meltdown that bounced them from the tournament the past two years.

Green’s baskets - and Ellington’s 3-pointer to stifle a brief Villanova burst and push the score to 70-55 - were emblematic of the manner the up-tempo Tar Heels put away the Wildcats. The outside shot helped carry North Carolina, which was 11-for-22 from beyond the 3-point line.

Villanova was a meager 5-for-27 from beyond the arc.

“It was big for us to come out and share the basketball and get easy ones,” Ellington said. “That’s what we did: We hit open shots.”

It was that outside shooting in the early moments that ensured a different Final Four experience for the Tar Heels. North Carolina, which found itself down 28 points a little more than a dozen minutes into last year’s semifinal loss to Kansas, avoided such a fate Saturday. The Tar Heels jumped on Villanova, quickly building a 19-8 lead and eventually pushing the edge to 17 in the first half.

But like last year, when the Tar Heels rallied to briefly make things interesting, so too did the Wildcats. Villanova’s spurt just before the break narrowed the deficit to 49-40, though Hansbrough’s 18 points ensured Carolina never entirely lost control of matters.

As a result, the members of a talented nucleus who could have bolted for something else a year ago are 40 minutes from achieving what they returned to Chapel Hill to accomplish.

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