Saturday March 29th, 2008

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- An inch or two to the left, and Wayne Ellington would have celebrated beneath a pile of delirious teammates. He would have seen his shining moment run on continuous loop every March alongside Lorenzo Charles, Tate George, Christian Laettner ('90 and '92), Bryce Drew and that other North Carolina player -- you remember him; he went on to play minor league baseball -- who hit a jumper with 17 seconds remaining to beat Georgetown in the 1982 national title game. For generations, children in driveways from Wilmington to Asheville and everywhere in between would recreate the scene.

Ellington cuts across the baseline ... He comes off a screen ... He's open on the right wing ... He shoots ... It's good! It's good! Freshman Wayne Ellington has shot the North Carolina Tar Heels into the Final Four!

But that's not how it happened. Ellington did come off that screen. He did have an open look from the right wing. The shot felt perfect when it left his hands. But it thudded off the back iron. The horn blared. North Carolina -- which had gagged away an 11-point halftime lead -- went to overtime against Georgetown, and the Hoyas seized the moment. They went to the Final Four, leaving the young Tar Heels to wonder how they wound up at home in Chapel Hill instead of at the Georgia Dome playing Ohio State.

"People had nightmares about it," point guard Ty Lawson said. "Wayne had nightmares."

Not entirely true, Ellington contends. "I didn't really have nightmares," he said. "But it was definitely something that was on my mind."

The miss at the end of regulation fueled Ellington in the weight room and on the practice court. Every so often, he ran the play for himself again. He swore that if he found himself with another shot to reach the Final Four, he'd be ready. He may get that chance tonight. The top-seeded Tar Heels face third-seeded Louisville in the East Region final. Both teams crave a track meet -- and they'll likely get one -- but after all that up-and-down, the result may hinge on a solitary shooter.

If that's the case, Ellington wants the ball. "Hopefully, the game doesn't come down to [one shot]," Ellington said. "If it does, then I feel a lot more prepared this year."

On smaller stages, Ellington has made that last shot. As a senior at Philadelphia's Episcopal Academy, he swished a pull-up 17-footer with 2.6 seconds remaining to beat rival Neumann-Goretti in a game televised on ESPN2. On Jan. 6, Ellington had his first chance at a buzzer-beater since the Georgetown loss. The Heels trailed, 88-87, with 5.4 seconds remaining in overtime at Clemson. Coming out of a timeout, the Heels inbounded to Lawson, who dribbled twice and fired the ball to Ellington, who had floated out to the left wing. Ellington elevated. His shot barely cleared the fingertips of charging Clemson forward James Mays. Asked what he saw on the play, Ellington didn't mention the 6-foot-9 Mays or his freakish wingspan.

"The rim," he said. "That's all I saw."

All the great shooters say that. And that's all Ellington saw against Georgetown, but the shot didn't fall. If it had, it likely would have gone down as one of the top five NCAA Tournament buzzer-beaters of the past 30 years because of the circumstances and because of the pedigrees of the two teams involved. Because it wasn't for a national title, it likely wouldn't have surpassed Michael Jordan's jumper to beat the Hoyas in 1982 or Charles' putback dunk to win the 1983 title for N.C. State. And because it would have broken a tie and not swung the result from a loss to a win, it wouldn't have topped Laettner's jumper against UConn in 1990 or his miracle shot against Kentucky in 1992. But Drew, George, Tyus Edney, Danny Ainge and a host of other legendary final shooters would have taken a back seat to Ellington.

Ellington isn't worried about his highlight reel legacy, though. He wants to be remembered only as a member of national championship team. Ellington's teammates would love to see him get another crack at an Elite Eight buzzer-beater, but most are more worried about the ball going through the net than the identity of the shooter.

"I would love for anybody to take that shot -- Tyler (Hansbrough), Ty, Wayne," forward Deon Thompson said. "As long as it goes in, I'm happy."

Still, Lawson said that if the Heels have one shot to make the Final Four, he hopes he gets the assist. If Ellington is open, Lawson intends to find him.

"If it comes down to that moment, that's the person I'm looking for," Lawson said. "I know he's going to knock it down."

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