March 11, 2008
CHAPEL HILL Former North Carolina coach Dean Smith used to say that the toughest teams often are forged from the heat of adversity.
Tough times provide two avenues: Teams may overcome their individual deficiencies and petty differences, or the trouble can divide them and ruin their hopes for success. Talent can be a huge factor in the ultimate outcome, or it can have little meaning if the human beings involved choose to focus on their individual agendas rather than creating a stronger bond.
Top-ranked UNC clearly has chosen to use its many troubles to become a stronger team.
Early in this season, coach Roy Williams often went to the media room after games disgusted with his team's performance on defense. At that time, many of the sleek athletes wearing the Carolina uniform would rather run the court and try to outscore opponents instead of getting their hands dirty and their feet moving on defense.
Then came the defining moment for the 2008 UNC team. Florida State center Ryan Reid yanked Carolina point guard Ty Lawson to the ground early in the game on Feb. 3, twisting Lawson's left ankle in a severe fashion. Lawson did not play again until March 1.
As it turned out, the month between Lawson's appearances became the bubbling cauldron in which UNC forged a tougher, more complete team.
"We have gotten better defensively," Williams said. "We've been drilling it from the first day. I don't think anyone works on it any harder. Our kids have taken the challenge to be a really good defensive team.
"We are getting better defensively. The statistics show that. We have to be a good defensive team if we want to reach those big-time dreams that we have."
During Lawson's absence, senior Quentin Thomas overcame all of the physical issues that have plagued him. He built confidence, and the team believed in him and his ability to lead it.
Tyler Hansbrough, already an All-American, elevated his game to that of the best player in college basketball. In the seven games in which Lawson did not play, Hansbrough averaged 28 points and 12.1 rebounds. There were moments, such as the game in Tallahassee when Lawson was injured, that Hansbrough's numbers were extraordinary.
That day he had 22 points and 21 rebounds. In a double-overtime, come-from-behind victory against Clemson, Hansbrough created a key steal in the comeback, played 47 of a possible 50 minutes, scored 39 points and grabbed 13 rebounds. Two days later, after having blood drained from a big toe and missing the first practice of his career because he could not walk, Hansbrough hit the key shot at Virginia to preserve a 75-74 victory.
The fact that Hansbrough lifted his production to such levels cannot be a real surprise, however, given his work ethic and competitive nature.
What made the difference was the development of Wayne Ellington, Marcus Ginyard's ever-lasting toughness and Danny Green's emergence.
In the first game without Lawson, Duke defeated Carolina 89-78 at the Smith Center. Green, Ellington and Thomas played horribly. Hansbrough looked drained from being too emotional.
After that game, UNC faced the critical moment. It had to create a true unit or see its dreams evaporate. The Tar Heels chose toughness and togetherness.
Ellington developed his game to a level heretofore unseen. Thomas became a different player. Green contributed intermittently, and Ginyard became the poster child for toughness, playing on two bad feet that had him walking in a protective boot between games. Big man Alex Stepheson emerged as a factor when Deon Thompson injured a knee and later his back.
UPGRADES: TOUGHNESS, DEFENSE
This new-found toughness manifested itself March 8 at Cameron Indoor Stadium, when the Tar Heels defeated Duke 76-88 to win the regular-season race in the ACC and earn the top seed at the league's tournament.
Carolina played steady, poised and well, taking a 42-31 lead at the half.
Duke made the expected run in the second half, first tying the game at 66 with 7:09 left on a layup by Jon Scheyer. With 5:42 to go, Scheyer hit another layup to give Duke a 68-66 lead.
Those would be the last points the Blue Devils scored.
"That is the thing that is going to make the difference late in the season, the fact that we have that mental toughness about us," Ginyard said. "They came back and made a great run, even took the lead. We continued to stay poised. We continued to come right back at them and continued to play our game. I think most teams in that situation would have gotten a little rattled."
A season of preaching defense, the necessity to do it because of injuries and illness in February, and Green's rising to a new level of play in the last few games fueled a calm response from Carolina at the critical moment. The Tar Heels just stayed poised and stopped Duke on the offensive end.
The refs played a role as well. After calling the game closely in the first half, the crew apparently decided that nothing short of manslaughter would draw a whistle in the second half. It did not matter which uniform the offender wore. The players were going to decide this one, and that clearly worked against Duke.
Yes, the Blue Devils were able to hammer Hansbrough with no regard for retribution and free throws. Hansbrough leads the country in free throws, and he did not shoot one against Duke. Not one.
But at the other end, Green blocked seven shots, Thompson five and three other Tar Heels blocked one for a total of 15.
Unless Duke sank the ball from long range, the basket was off-limits in the final minutes. The result was that UNC scored the last 10 points of the game and won with a clear, firm hand.
Just as important as the defense was the overall contribution of everyone who played in so many areas, offense being an obvious point. Green led the team with 18 points, one bucket being a memorable dunk over Greg Paulus. Thomas sank a critical three-pointer. Ellington finally played better against Duke, scoring 16 points.
"Every time anybody asks about Danny Green," Ginyard said, "I said he is just that guy who can get it in every stat column. A lot of times people overlook him because he does a lot of the little things. Tonight he did a lot of the little things. I'm just happy for his performance. He was huge for us."
Lawson finally started to look more like his old self, too. His quickness hurt Duke repeatedly. He had three steals to go with three assists, two turnovers and 10 points. He also had three big rebounds.
In all, Carolina had 20 offensive rebounds out of its total of 53 and held Duke to less than 33 percent shooting for the game.
Now the Tar Heels must try to maintain that kind of performance, because the real moment of truth is here. The ACC Tournament begins this week, and then the one every kid on this team has been waiting for since blowing a lead to Georgetown in the final six minutes of the East Region final last season the NCAA Tournament.
"We've been through a lot of adversity this year," Thomas said. "Tonight showed we can overcome it, even with them going on a great run like they did late in the second half. We still kept our poise. We got the shots that we wanted, and on the defensive end, we got the stops."