- The Washington Times - Monday, April 6, 2009

DETROIT (AP) - They’ve won four straight years at Duke’s famously hostile Cameron Indoor Stadium. They’ve won Atlantic Coast Conference tournaments, played under the weight of No. 1 rankings and met expectations by returning to the Final Four for a second straight season.

But North Carolina’s been-there, done-that confidence is about to be tested.

The players who have helped the Tar Heels advance a little deeper in the NCAA tournament each year are preparing for their first national championship game against Michigan State.

“We’ve never done this before,” senior Danny Green said. “We’re going to try to take it the same way. The only difference is it’s the last game of the season.”

Few teams would seem to be as prepared for this moment as the Tar Heels (33-4). Two years ago, they reached the regional championship game. Last season, they made it to the Final Four. Now, after Saturday night’s easy win against Villanova, they are one win away from the program’s fifth NCAA title.

“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 nor the Spartans (31-6) know for sure. That undermines one of North Carolina’s biggest advantages on opponents all year _ the experience that has come through steady team building after the 2005 NCAA title.

The senior class of Green, Tyler Hansbrough, 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 Thompson, Wayne Ellington, 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 to set up a rematch against the Spartans in Monday night’s championship game. Michigan State, which will have a home-state crowd behind it, lost the first meeting by 35 points here in December.

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.

Now they need to play once more with a steady veteran hand.

“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.”

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