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Carolina’s Wild Ride: Successful Season Finds Nightmarish Ending

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

By Andrew Jones
Wilmington (N.C.) Star-News

April 8, 2008

SAN ANTONIO — A consistent flow of tears permeated North Carolina's locker room in the bowels of the Alamodome on the night of April 5.

These weren't the tears of joy the Tar Heels expected when to a man they announced last October that their goal was to win the national championship. This was a compilation of sadness, hurt and bewilderment.

Carolina was eliminated by Kansas in most disturbing fashion, 84-66, in the NCAA Tournament semifinals. It was the headline game of a first-ever Final Four, after all four No. 1 seeds reached the grand weekend of basketball celebration, and each team was deemed worthy of cutting down the nets.

First, UCLA was overrun by Memphis. Then Carolina was assaulted by the Jayhawks, who used an 18-0 run to open an unthinkable 40-12 lead. UNC's players were overwhelmed, and so was its coach.

Roy Williams mostly stood and watched as his team put forth one of the worst Final Four performances in history. He finally called a timeout when the score was 38-12, with Kansas on a 23-2 run that ultimately reached 25-2.

That's why such a well-crafted season, in which the Heels overcame several bouts of adversity, will be remembered much more for the demolition at the hands of Kansas than for the impressive path Carolina took to get there.

The Tar Heels finished the season 36-3 and won the ACC regular-season and tournament championships. They reached the Final Four — unlike last year, when a late-game meltdown against Georgetown in the East Regional final sent them home instead of to Atlanta. They also set a school record for victories and had the national player of the year.

"You can't take anything away from this team. We've accomplished some great things," junior Marcus Ginyard said. "But, obviously, the season didn't fall for us the way we wanted it to.

"But a while from now, and I don't know how long that is, everybody in this locker room knows we accomplished great things. We just didn't get to the one thing we wanted the most. … In time, though, I hope we realize what we've done."

SOME PROMISING EARLY SIGNS

Several key moments marked the Tar Heels' growth to becoming the winningest team in the program's fabled history.

Getting through some tough road games early, with Ty Lawson hobbled with his first ankle sprain and junior Bobby Frasor manning the point, helped the Tar Heels develop some layers of toughness. It also meant that they had to alter their preferred pace, which would come in handy two months down the road.

"I think that was such an important period for us, because it taught us the importance of being able to play at different speeds," said Ginyard, the de facto team spokesman. "We were running so much early and were intent on playing faster than any team has, and suddenly we had to slow things down some."

Maybe had those games against Brigham Young (when Lawson was injured two minutes into the contest played in Las Vegas) and at Ohio State been at the Dean Dome, the Heels would have approached them intent on playing a faster pace.

Instead, Williams used the opportunity to teach his team how to better complement the post production of junior star Tyler Hansbrough, and it paid off.

"Those were big wins for us," Hansbrough said. "They were tough games. We had to play hard defense and communicate, and we had to be more accountable for things because there weren't as many possessions. I think those games made us better."

The two contests without Lawson were part of a six-game stretch the Tar Heels played away from Chapel Hill. The first two games — against Old Dominion and BYU — were on neutral courts, but the last four were at Ohio State, at Kentucky, at Penn and at Rutgers.

Winning on the road builds character, toughness and confidence. That's something last year's team didn't always incorporate into its performances. It came and went, a normal ebb and flow for young teams such as the 2007 Heels.

One of the learned lessons of this campaign was that finding consistency might be the most crucial ingredient to maintaining confidence.

"Winning on the road is so huge," Ginyard said. "Even if you're not playing well but you still win on the road, I think that's the best feeling. It makes you believe you can do almost anything."

BREAKTHROUGH AT CLEMSON

But perhaps the most telling night of the year came on Jan. 6, when the Tar Heels pulled out a 90-88 overtime victory at No. 19 Clemson.

The atmosphere that Sunday night at Littlejohn Coliseum was frenzied. The Tigers were finally on the verge of truly breaking through under fifth-year coach Oliver Purnell.

Clemson was the last unbeaten team in the nation the season before, starting out 17-0. But it failed to make the NCAA Tournament, after closing the regular season on a lengthy sour note.

The Tigers gained valuable experience and confidence advancing to the NIT title game, however. And that was supposed to pay off this season.

So here they were again, off to another great start and hosting the ACC's best team. A victory over the top-ranked and undefeated Tar Heels would have catapulted Clemson into the national consciousness and possibly even propel it to a one-of-a-kind season. With a loss, many observers might have assumed it was the same old Clemson people have come to take lightly rather than seriously.

Clemson held UNC to 41.7 percent shooting that night and forced 19 turnovers, one more than the Tar Heels had assists. The Tigers even limited Hansbrough to a season-low 12 points.

But UNC, which was without backup center Alex Stepheson and just two games removed from Frasor's season-ending knee injury, found a way to win. Ellington scored 36 points and hit the game-winning three-pointer, but more important to him was what he realized that night.

It wasn't that his name was launched into the national spotlight, or that he put forth one of the greatest scoring games in recent UNC history. And it wasn't the jubilation of the moment the ball fell through the cylinder, giving his team a huge road victory. It was something much deeper and more meaningful.

"It was when we had our first fight," Ellington said. "We had to dig down, and we had to make big plays, and we had to execute down the stretch and make big-time stops. It showed our team's maturity and our will to win."

That was when Ellington realized that Carolina had grown from its meltdown against Georgetown in the Elite Eight last March.

That Sunday evening in frigid New Jersey, UNC saw a late, double-digit lead evaporate in an eight-minute stretch of the worst basketball it played all season. Instead of the Heels advancing to the Final Four, Georgetown moved on.

That albatross was gone after the escape at Littlejohn.

"I always knew I could hit big shots," said Ellington, who missed a potential game-winner toward the end of regulation against the Hoyas. "That motivated me only so much. It was that I saw the looks in everyone's eyes, their faces, and knew we were a totally different team.

"We were freshmen and sophomores mostly (in 2007), and I saw a much older and mature team. That will always stay with me. It told me we were ready for big things."

The loss to Georgetown served as motivation for the Tar Heels, but mainly in the offseason. Williams wanted them to disregard it once this season began.

"Don't let them beat us again," Hansbrough said his coach instructed.

The Tar Heels' stated goals were not just to advance to the Final Four, but to win the national championship. Losing to Clemson that night wouldn't have been a season-wrecker, but winning helped Williams' order become more of a reality.

"I agree with Wayne," Hansbrough said. "That game taught us we were more mature, stronger and better."

POST-INJURY TRANSFORMATION

Lawson went down with a nasty ankle sprain a few weeks later, just four minutes into an overtime victory at Florida State on Super Bowl Sunday.

That was an important win because it required toughness once again, something this team was getting used to displaying. But with Frasor sidelined for the season, it also meant that senior point guard Quentin Thomas was suddenly the most important player on the roster.

Chastised for inconsistent play, which usually bordered on the negative, during his first three and a half seasons, Thomas suddenly was thrust into a role exceedingly more important than that to which he was accustomed.

He was the team's third-string point guard on Christmas. Now he was faced with running the show in UNC's next game, a home tilt with Duke.

Expectations were low for Thomas, whose only previous start had come in his college debut, a loss to Santa Clara in his hometown of Oakland, Calif. The only reason he started that night was because regular starting point guard Raymond Felton had been suspended for playing in an unsanctioned charity game the previous summer.

That UNC team later won the national championship, and the uniqueness of losing to the Broncos of the West Coast Conference served as a reminder to the Anti-Q crowd that Thomas wasn't worthy of major minutes for the Heels.

Thomas did a fair job (10 points, seven assists, six turnovers) against the Blue Devils, but the Tar Heels lost.

Not knowing when Lawson would return had Carolina fans tense and stressing that a season with realistic national championship possibilities could go down in flames, with Thomas the lead igniter.

But when "Q," as his teammates called him, converted a runner in the lane to help send the following contest against Clemson at home into overtime, and then he sank a pair of free throws to put the game into double overtime, it was clear that he wasn't going to derail the Tar Heels.

Thomas' confidence soared, and UNC began to jell in a different manner than with the super-fast Lawson at the point.

"I never lost faith in myself," said Thomas, who averaged 7.2 points and 6.7 assists in six games as a starter. "And my teammates never lost faith in me. That's important, because I never felt like there was something I shouldn't or couldn't do out there. Their support never wavered."

The next game, a 75-74 victory at Virginia, was one of the team's most important of the season. Just 48 hours after the double-overtime win over Clemson, and with the Heels' roster chock full of injuries and battered bodies, Carolina managed another close road win.

Ginyard manned the point for 22 minutes in Charlottesville, in a game that easily could have gone the Cavaliers' way. Hansbrough, who scored 39 points two days earlier, finished with 23 despite playing without a big toe nail on his right foot, and UNC picked up a win that seemed to put it into overdrive.

The Heels won comfortably from that point on — routing Virginia Tech the following Saturday, and putting on a clinic in overcoming Boston College on March 1.

UNC was forced to play more to Thomas' strengths with Lawson out of the lineup. Its half-court offense improved because the Heels had to display more patience. No longer were 100 possessions-per-game any kind of mantra. And in the end, it helped them to win without their star playmaker and offered him an opportunity to alter his game mentally.

"Watching Q and watching the guys has helped," Lawson said in early March. "I learned that you can't always push it, the better times to pull it back. Injuries are never good and this wasn't good, but I still got something out of it."

HANSBROUGH: PLAYER OF THE YEAR

With Lawson sidelined, the Heels had to find ways to make up for the lost production. Changing the pace was one thing, but it meant that Ginyard would slide over to back up Thomas, and Green had to play more at shooting guard.

Stepheson received increased time at power forward subbing for Deon Thompson, who also battled injuries for a few weeks in February, and even Will Graves entered the rotation once his defensive efforts were approved by Williams. Ellington's performances became more well-rounded and consistent.

But the increased production by Hansbrough became the talk of the region before the nation caught on. The leader for national player of the year honors when Lawson went down, the rugged-yet-athletic 6-9 native of Poplar Bluff, Mo., exploded into something even better.

Hansbrough averaged 29 points and 11 rebounds during the month Lawson was saddled, and in the process he sealed most national honors.

To avoid double-teams in UNC's more half-court-oriented sets, Hansbrough stepped his game away from the basket and started knocking down jumpers. He went from attempting a couple per game to five or six per night, often sinking more than half of his shots.

And as defenders stepped out to respect his jumper, the underrated athlete often took his man off the dribble. Going baseline was his specialty.

"I definitely think that is a big key for me, is to be able to score in a lot of different ways," Hansbrough said. "I think that I've worked real hard on my jump shot, and it opens up a lot of things for me."

Carolina already knew it had three star-caliber players in Lawson, Ellington and Hansbrough, but knowing it had a national player of the year to ride when it needed — and it learned later on in the postseason this was true — was important for the psyche of the team.

Balance, which UNC also had, is great. But having that one special player often helps push a team to the top.

"Tyler, he's our engine, man," Lawson said. "We follow his lead."

PROCESS: GETTING DEFENSIVE

"North Carolina doesn't play defense," the national pundits said in January. "They look disinterested," some others opined.

UNC wasn't a great defensive team by any stretch, but it wasn't playing matador defense either, especially in March.

The layering process of UNC's defense took the longest to iron itself out. Similar to the 2005 national championship team, the cement simply didn't dry on Carolina's defense until the most crucial time of the season.

Williams' system of fighting through screens instead of switching isn't easy to play, and one mistake can make all five players on the floor look bad, as it often leads to easy shot opportunities. In Carolina's case, that usually meant point-blank layups or wide-open three-point attempts.

But when UNC went into Cameron Indoor Stadium on March 8 with the regular-season ACC championship on the line, that notion was put to rest.

Not only did the usually stubborn Williams break from his granite mold by having the Tar Heels switch on ball screens — which worked in their favor — but the Heels displayed rock-solid defense in holding the Blue Devils scoreless over the game's final 5:42.

"We know they like to use a lot of ball screens, and last time they did a lot of pitching and popping instead of rolling to the basket," Ellington said after the game. "So we thought it would be easier to switch and not let them get those open threes."

It was a statement by Carolina and by Williams. And, as Hansbrough said, it was another layer.

"We definitely took a step forward tonight," he said. "I think we're headed down the right road."

DISAPPOINTING FINAL FOUR

Unfortunately for UNC, and for a Carolina fan base that traveled to San Antonio fully expecting to celebrate on the evening of April 7, that road ended two big steps short of paradise.

With red cheeks and the residue of tears still in his eyes, Hansbrough tried to explain what happened in the team's meltdown against Kansas.

"It's pretty obvious we weren't playing the way we normally play, we weren't on top of our game," he said, sitting in front of his locker. "It's very frustrating, because I felt like we were playing awfully good coming in here, and just to have a lapse like this is frustrating. I mean, (we were) so close."

In time, the players, the coach and maybe a forgiving fans base will put into perspective that this was an excellent season. Williams is still building the foundation in Chapel Hill. This was just his fifth season at his alma mater, and while his club was loaded, so were the other teams in San Antonio.

After all, only one program can win the national championship each season. UCLA has been to the Final Four for three consecutive years now, without celebrating on Monday night. That's hardly a string of failure for the Bruins, yet some may see it that way.

For UNC, this is a process. If Lawson, Ellington and Hansbrough return next season, the Tar Heels could accomplish even more.

They'll certainly have Kansas and the Alamodome on their minds.

"The best thing for us is to eventually recognize we did some good things this year, but to also understand it takes more than we gave, obviously," Ginyard said. "And it's our responsibility to each other to do more."