- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 7, 2009

DETROIT | Winning a championship is never supposed to be easy.

North Carolina sure made it look that way.

The Tar Heels dispensed with matters quickly in Monday's national title game, building a record 21-point lead at halftime to turn a dreary day in the Motor City into a little slice of Carolina blue heaven.

Final Four Most Outstanding Player Wayne Ellington scored 19 points as the Tar Heels completed their ascent back to the peak of college basketball, pounding Michigan State 89-72 before 72,922 at Ford Field to snare their second national title in five seasons.

“All year, everyone anointed this team [the favorite],” coach Roy Williams said. “They played their tails off and had some bumps in the road. They handled injuries and losses. All I know is these youngsters are great young men. I'm the luckiest coach in America, I can tell you that.”

Tyler Hansbrough scored 18 points on a night he added the one laurel missing from his decorated dossier - national champion - and Ty Lawson had 21 points, six assists and a tournament record-tying eight steals as the Tar Heels (34-4) secured what nearly everyone believed they would nearly five months ago when the season commenced.

After all, North Carolina returned nearly everyone from a Final Four team from a year ago, including the consensus national player of the year (Hansbrough), a point guard who evolved into an elite weapon as a junior (Lawson) and a gunner (Ellington) whose status as bellwether remains intact after the Tar Heels improved to 49-0 when he shoots 50 percent or better.

Center Goran Suton scored 17 points for the Spartans (31-7), who insisted this meeting would be nothing like the 98-63 woodshedding they suffered in the same stadium Dec. 3.

They were right. And in some ways, it was worse - and pretty much from a held ball opening tip that led to a mismatch of a do-over between Hansbrough and Michigan State guard Travis Walton.

That proved the least of Michigan State's worries. The North Carolina backcourt eviscerated the Spartans, with Lawson aggravating his defense-first opponents with more peskiness than they could envision. He had seven steals in the first half alone, single-handedly discombobulating a Michigan State bunch unable to establish an inside presence.

Ellington, the junior sharpshooter, shredded the Spartans at the other end. He shrugged off the presence of Walton, scoring 17 points in the first half while mixing in slick plays in both the halfcourt offense and in transition.

It was little shock Ellington connected on the 3-pointer to make it 46-22 and finally prompt Michigan State coach Tom Izzo to call a timeout to regroup - or that Lawson followed a steal with an outlet to Ellington for a dunk to bump the Tar Heels' edge to 55-32 a minute before the break.

That basket broke a title game record for points in the first half, and the Tar Heels' 21-point lead was the most at halftime in an NCAA final.

“The best team won,” Izzo said. “It's an easy statement to make.”

Neither Hansbrough nor Lawson (nor Ellington nor Danny Green, for that matter) required validation for their decisions to return for another season. The last four-plus months provided plenty of fulfillment and a chance to play once more for one of the nation's storied programs.

They just happened to add their own chapter to the Tar Heels' legacy.

North Carolina secured its fifth NCAA title, tied for third in tournament history with Indiana (and behind only fellow blue bloods UCLA and Kentucky). And while this season's journey was hardly the dominant wire-to-wire act so many expected, it was nevertheless impressive.

At the center of it all - literally - was Hansbrough, the rugged big man who scribbled his name through his school's and conference's record books. Hansbrough leaves as North Carolina's top career scorer and rebounder, as well as the ACC's points leader.

He also departs a national champion, a designation he always professed meant much more than any number.

It was a triumph for the man who put it all together. Throughout his run at Kansas, Williams was dogged not just for reaching four Final Fours and always falling short but also for the early exits that earned him the mocking moniker “Second Round Roy.”

A national title in 2005 nor a Hall of Fame induction two years later did not sate some criticisms. But the recruit-aholic Williams built up this team from three straight tournament disappointments.

The impressive first half locked up the title, and while Michigan State narrowed the margin into the teens for much of the second half, the Tar Heels were never seriously threatened. The inevitability of trimmed twine and a night of celebration soon became obvious, and North Carolina basked in its well-earned accomplishment.

The celebration came easy. The final game looked easy.

But this, like any other championship, was anything but effortless.

“I thought about how hard we worked,” Ellington said. “We've worked so hard since we fell short last year. We wanted to redeem ourselves.”


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