DETROIT — When Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green decided to eschew the NBA and return to college for another year, they were expected to lead North Carolina to a national title.
They are now one game away.
Although it wasn't always offensively picturesque, the Tar Heels jumped on the Villanova Wildcats early and, despite some uncharacteristic shooting woes from the free-throw line, cruised to an 83-69 win late Saturday at Ford Field.
"It's been a great run, a great year, and these guys standing around me are a lot tougher than people think they are," coach Roy Williams told CBS after the game, "and I think they showed it again today."
Lawson had 22 points, Ellington 20, Hansbrough 18 and Green 12 for the top-seeded Tar Heels (33-4), who will seek their fifth title and second in five years when they meet Michigan State on Monday.
It will be a rematch of a ballyhooed regular-season matchup in this building that turned into a blowout. UNC won 98-63 on Dec. 3, but the Spartans were without injured center Goran Suton.
"I knew we played very, very well that night," Williams said. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo "does a great job. We're happy. We're going to enjoy the dickens out of this one for a while, and the coaching staff may even sprint up that tunnel like we did on Dec. 3 just to show these guys we're tough also."
To a man, the Tar Heels were far tougher — at least mentally — than they were in last year's national semifinal against Kansas. On that night, they were lethargic, stunningly fell behind 40-12 and never really recovered.
They looked fairly sharp at the outset of this one. A 14-2 run gave them a 19-8 lead, and they seemed ready to blow the Wildcats out, opening up a 17-point lead with 7 minutes left before the break behind the play of their Fab Four. "Last year left a mark, a nice little scar, and we wanted to come back (to this stage) and play better," Green said.
The Wildcats, who lost convincingly here to Kansas in last year's Sweet 16, had been playing their best ball of late. They blew out UCLA, which was shooting for a fourth consecutive Final Four, by 20, shut down ACC tournament champion Duke (which shot a season-low 26.7 percent from the field) to cruise to a 23-point win, then beat top-seeded Pittsburgh on junior guard Scottie Reynolds' shot with .5 seconds left.
No surprise, then, that the No. 3-seeded Wildcats (30-8), in the Final Four for the first time since 1985, when they won the national title, scratched back to within 49-40 at the break, then 50-45 in the opening moments of the second half.
But Green followed with a 3-pointer, Lawson scored on a layup, and Green hit another 3.
"Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games, and that's what he did for us," Ellington said of Green. "We didn't want to panic, wanted to keep our poise and make a play. But what it really came down to was we got stops."
Villanova shot 32.9 percent from the field, including 18.5 percent (5-of-27) from 3-point range, and scored 12 fewer than it had been averaging in the NCAA Tournament.
So even with Hansbrough picking up his fourth foul with 8:09 left and sitting for more than four minutes and Lawson, the ACC player of the year who was shooting 81.5 percent from the line, struggling (10-of-17), the Heels led by double figures the rest of the way.
"They've got all the pieces, and we've got great respect for them," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "We'd been getting better every game; we did not get better this game."