Thursday April 3rd, 2008

Quentin Thomas sat in a locker stall at Charlotte Bobcats Arena early Sunday morning wearing the hottest thing in men's basketball fashion -- a net necklace.

"I think I'm going to get some diamonds," the North Carolina senior guard said as he curled the net around a finger. "Ask my jeweler."

Minutes earlier, Tar Heels coach Roy Williams had told Thomas to collect the first net after every Carolina player had taken a piece following the Heels' Elite Eight win over Louisville. That Williams bestowed such an honor on Thomas would have seemed unbelievable two months ago, when Carolina fans despaired at the thought of Thomas replacing the injured Ty Lawson at point guard. Thomas helped Carolina to an 8-1 record in Lawson's absence, proving again that even though stars Lawson, forward Tyler Hansbrough and guard Wayne Ellington -- who account for 56 percent of Carolina's offense -- get most of the publicity, the Heels couldn't have reached this point without their role players.

Thomas, Danny Green, Deon Thompson, Alex Stepheson and Marcus Ginyard don't get much publicity, but without Green coming off the bench to score 12 first-half points against Washington State or Thompson hitting clutch turnaround jumpers against Louisville, North Carolina might not be in San Antonio today. Ginyard, a starter who received the most votes from ACC coaches in the league's all-defensive team balloting, had to serve as the backup point guard during Lawson's absence on top of his usual assignment -- guarding the opponent's best perimeter scorer. Stepheson, a 6-foot-9, 235-pound power forward who has NBA scouts drooling every time he doffs his warmup, could start on most Division-I teams, but he comes off the bench without complaint for Carolina.

"I just wanted to be a winner, and I wanted to have a chance at a national championship," Stepheson said of his decision to come to North Carolina over schools that would have offered a spot in the starting lineup.

Williams believes the selflessness of the role players is a major reason the Heels have come this far. Last weekend, he compared this team to the 2005 squad that won the national title. Like Stepheson or Green now, Marvin Williams could have started for just about anyone, but he happily accepted a sixth-man role in exchange for a ring.

"Those guys made sacrifices," Roy Williams said. "And Marvin Williams coming off the bench, ended up being the second player picked in the draft, but he didn't care. He just wanted to win. That's been the common denominator with both those teams."

That has made life easier for Carolina's stars, who don't have to force shots because they know someone will pick up the load if they have an off night. For example, Green's offensive outburst against Washington State came in a half in which Hansbrough scored only two points. "We would have pressure if one of us had to score all the points," Lawson said. "We know that somebody else can come in and score, and our teammates can come in and help pick us up. There's no pressure on any one person to score."

Among Carolina's role players, Thomas may have had the most difficult road. He said he never considered transferring, even though some Heels fans thought he should. He remained the program's whipping boy until the stretch following Lawson's injury, an ankle sprain suffered Feb. 3 at Florida State. While no one mistook Thomas for Lawson, the senior did guide the Heels with a steady hand. Thomas said that in the aftermath of Lawson's injury, it was almost as if God told him, "This is your opportunity. Take advantage of it." Thomas, the lone remaining member of that 2005 team, delighted in helping this team to the Final Four.

"To be returning with a new group of guys, it's an even greater feeling," Thomas said. "Now they get to experience what I felt."

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