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Hansbrough wills North Carolina to a win

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Here, on his rump, is college basketball's player of the year.

And, honestly, there is not a more fitting position for Tyler Hansbrough.

Seven seconds remain in the game, the lead is in double figures, and the guy can't stop throwing his body around the court. A ball has bounced loose, and it is Hansbrough who is diving where no one else will bother to go.

If you are wondering how North Carolina outlasted Louisville 83-73 in the East Region final Saturday night, this picture is as good a starting point as you will get.

Hansbrough was literally everywhere for the Tar Heels in the game's final 14 minutes. When his teammates were panicking, Hansbrough was slamming dunks off missed shots. When his teammates were afraid to shoot, the 6-foot-9 Hansbrough was hitting long jumpers. When a Final Four bid was on the line, Hansbrough performed as if there were not a better player in the universe.

"He's a heck of a basketball player," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. "Some pro team is going to be very lucky to get him. I haven't seen a guy play every possession like that in a long time. Actually, I've never seen it."

North Carolina is loaded, of that there is no doubt. The Tar Heels have a blend of speed and discipline that is hard to beat. They can run, they can muscle, they can shoot and, when it's over, they can dance with the best.

But what was most impressive Saturday night was the way they took a gut punch and managed to hang on. And Carolina fans everywhere can thank Hansbrough for that.

For 31/2 games, the Tar Heels had cruised through the NCAA Tournament with hardly a drip of sweat on their brows. They were not just winning, they were making a joke of the rest of the field.

So it was fascinating to see the reaction when Louisville finally fought back. The Cardinals were down by 12 at intermission but began the second half at a lightning pace.

Louisville cut the lead to 52-48 with a little more than 14 minutes left, and that was when Hansbrough decided fate would be in his hands. Danny Green missed a jumper on the next possession, and Hansbrough came flying through the paint for a monster putback dunk.

During the next several minutes, Hansbrough was everywhere on offense and defense. The Cardinals tied the score with 10:21 remaining, but Hansbrough scored the next five to put Carolina ahead for good.

"He deserves every accolade and all the honors he gets," Louisville senior David Padgett said. "I've never played against somebody who goes that hard."

If his determination impressed the Cardinals, his shooting ability must have shocked them. Twice, as the shot clock was winding down, Hansbrough got just inside the 3-point arc and nailed jump shots.

"He's made that shot each and every day, hundreds of times, thousands of times at practice," Carolina forward Marcus Ginyard said. "Everybody on this team feels confident when he takes those shots."

When it was all over, Hansbrough had 28 points and 13 rebounds and North Carolina once again had a place in the Final Four.

"We don't have many weaknesses," Green said. "And the ones we do have are not as weak as some people think."

And, for that, coach Roy Williams deserves a large measure of credit. During his last trip to the Final Four — when Carolina won the national championship in 2005 — he was using a lot of players recruited by Matt Doherty and was fighting the image of the Tar Heels as a bunch of all-stars with little comprehension of teamwork.

This time, there is no mistaking Williams' stamp. And when it came to Carolina's most important game to date, he had more answers on his bench than Pitino.

It was, in some ways, a historic meeting of accomplished coaches. Both men came into the building with five Final Fours on their resume, and Williams left with a sixth in his coat pocket. Only John Wooden, Dean Smith and Mike Krzyzewski can claim more.

Like everyone else in powder blue, Williams can thank Hansbrough for that.

"Marcus said something to me on the way in here," Hansbrough said afterward. "He said it feels like we've done something big, but something bigger is still out there."

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Hansbrough wills North Carolina to a win 03/29/08 [Last modified: Sunday, March 30, 2008 12:29am]

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