Sunday March 30th, 2008

The schedule taped to the wall Saturday in the North Carolina locker room lacked one critical, final entry.

8:50 p.m.: National anthem (Teams remain on the court.)

9:01 p.m.: Horn to clear floor for player introductions.

9:02 p.m.: Player introductions.

9:05 p.m.: Tip-off.

11:17 p.m.: Everyone stops worrying about what kind of pro Tyler Hansbrough will be and appreciates him for what he is -- a great college basketball player who just blessed us all with one of the most dominant, career-defining performances in NCAA Tournament history.

Until this tournament ends a week from Monday, let's place a moratorium on the debate as to whether Hansbrough will be the second coming of Karl Malone or the second coming of Matt Geiger. It's the least we can do to honor the 28 points and 13 rebounds Hansbrough hung on Louisville in top-seeded North Carolina's 83-73 win in Saturday's East Regional final. When the Tar Heels needed carrying, Hansbrough strapped them to his back. When the third-seeded Cardinals still had a tiny spark of hope, Hansbrough singlehandedly snuffed it.

David Padgett, the 6-foot-11 Goliath cut down by Hansbrough at every turn Saturday, gushed. "I've never played against somebody who plays that hard," Padgett said. "That kid is determined to be a great basketball player." Padgett, the hub through which Louisville coach Rick Pitino runs his offense, entered Saturday averaging 11.4 points. With Hansbrough harassing him, he didn't score his first basket until two minutes into the second half.

By then, Hansbrough had already soared over Padgett's head to slam down a Danny Green miss. By then, Hansbrough had already scored 12 points and grabbed five rebounds. Padgett would suffer two more indignities at the hands of Hansbrough on Saturday but they would have to wait until after the 6-foot-9, 250-pound junior from Poplar Bluff, Mo., did the real heavy lifting.

The Tar Heels led by 12 at the half, but the lead didn't feel safe. Louisville shot 52 percent in the first half and the Cardinals knew that if they could crank up their press and reduce their turnovers, they could erase that lead. Which is exactly what they did.

The Cardinals sliced the deficit to one when Juan Palacios found Jerry Smith for a three-pointer with 11:44 remaining but the Tar Heels stretched the lead back to four when Hansbrough scored in spite of a Terrence Williams foul and swished the ensuing free throw. But on Louisville's next possession, Andre McGee made a three. Next trip, Earl Clark made the second of two free throws to tie the score at 59 with 10:21 remaining. The Tar Heels flashed back to 2007 in East Rutherford, N.J. There, they squandered an 11-point second-half lead and wound up losing in overtime to Georgetown in the East region final.

But Saturday, they didn't panic.

"We're more mature this year," Hansbrough said. "We have guys who know what it's like to lose a game like that to be so close to a Final Four and let it slip away. Tonight, everybody had that on their minds."

During second-half huddles, North Carolina coach Roy Williams said Hansbrough actually spoke. Williams remembered Hansbrough saying "Hey! Come on! Let's finish this off!"

"When he says something like that," Williams said, "they listen to him."

Any guesses as to who broke the tie? That's right. Hansbrough grabbed a Ty Lawson pass and laid the ball in to give the Tar Heels a lead they never would relinquish. Not that the Cardinals didn't get close. Clark cut the lead to five with 3:51 remaining. Then McGee stole the ball from Hansbrough. One bucket, and Louisville had a one-possession game. But out on the perimeter, with little opposition, Terrence Williams threw a pass at McGee's ankles. McGee couldn't handle the short hop, and the ball bounded over the sideline as Williams staggered off the court wondering how he screwed up an uncontested pass.

Less than a minute later, Hansbrough had the ball just inside the top of the key. He rose. Padgett charged. The 19-foot jumper arced over Padgett and sank through the net to give the Heels a 73-66 lead. After a travelling call against Louisville's Clark, Pitino called timeout. It couldn't happen again, everyone in red thought. Seconds later, Hansbrough cradled the ball 15 feet from the hoop on the left wing. He rose. Padgett charged. All net. "Tyler Hansbrough," Pitino would say later, "made two shots that you prayed they were going to take."

As he sat early Sunday morning in the locker room with a piece of net tied around the band of his hat, North Carolina's Green reflected on the jumpers that broke the Cardinals. "If [Hansbrough] didn't make those, the whole season could have changed," Green said. "It would have changed our whole season. You guys would probably talking to Louisville right now."

Funny thing about those shots, Hansbrough said. Padgett nearly stuffed both of them. "If you look at it again, [the first jumper] probably almost got blocked. He was right there with me," Hansbrough said. "The next one, he was right on me as soon as I took that dribble. It just happened to go in."

Williams would disagree. He saw Hansbrough practice those very same jumpers thousands of times this season as he searched for a new facet to add to the game some believe won't translate to the NBA. "You guys have heard it before, but he does the same thing in practice every day," Williams said. "I mean, the young man is the most driven, most focused youngster I've ever seen in my life."

And now he's led his team to a Final Four. That fact wasn't lost on Hansbrough, who knew he'd have a gaping hole in his legacy if he didn't. "Each great college team, that Final Four has to come with it," Hansbrough said. "For players, they say they're not a great college player unless they have a Final Four."

Sunday, Hansbrough plans to sleep until noon. He doesn't intend to watch the Kansas-Davidson game that will determine whom the Tar Heels will face Saturday in San Antonio. In fact, he said, he didn't even know when Kansas and Davidson will tip off. Hansbrough does know he can't be satisfied with simply reaching the Final Four. Teammate Marcus Ginyard drove home that point late Saturday night. As the pair walked behind Williams down a hallway toward a packed press conference, Ginyard leaned toward Hansbrough.

"It feels like we did something big," Hansbrough remembered Ginyard saying. "But we can also do something bigger."

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