DETROIT - North Carolina forward Deon Thompson opted for brutal honesty when he described the Tar Heels' trip to the Final Four in 2008. "Last year," Thompson said Friday, "we forgot that we had to play the basketball game."
By the time Carolina players remembered, they were down 28 to eventual national champion Kansas with five minutes remaining in the first half. As the Tar Heels prepared for Saturday's national semifinal against Villanova, they never lost sight of their primary reason for their trip to the Motor City.
Carolina, the odds-on favorite to win the national title since the Final Four field was set, arrived at Ford Field wide awake. They raced to a 17-point first-half lead and cruised to an 83-69 win (
"They're a different team," center Tyler Hansbrough said. "We caught them on a bad night when they had played a lot of games in a short period of time."
Monday's game will be the eighth time two teams that met in the regular season will face off again in the national title game. Five times, the team that lost the regular-season matchup won the title. The last time, in 2007, the team that won the regular-season meeting (Florida over Ohio State) also won the rematch.
Saturday, point guard Ty Lawson led the Tar Heels with 22 points. Guard Wayne Ellington scored 20 and Hansbrough - the school's all-time leading scorer - added 18 points and 11 rebounds. Guard Scottie Reynolds, whose driving layup lifted Villanova to an Elite Eight upset of No. 1 seed Pittsburgh a week earlier, scored 17. Forward Dante Cunningham added 12 points and 12 rebounds. Cunningham, a senior whose NCAA tournament career began with a run to the Elite Eight as a freshman, received a standing ovation from Villanova fans when he fouled out with 1:46 remaining.
The Wildcats reached the Final Four for the first time since the 1985 team, which stunned Georgetown for the national title. Though these Wildcats couldn't pull the upset, Coach Jay Wright left proud of all this group accomplished. "We've been getting better every game," Wright said. "We did not get better this game. There's a number of reasons. Probably the main reason, though, is we played a better team tonight."
North Carolina will play in the final for the first time since 2005, when the Tar Heels beat Illinois in St. Louis to win the school's fourth national title. That win was the first for Coach Roy Williams in three tries on college basketball's biggest stage. At Kansas, Williams lost to Duke (1991) and Syracuse (2003) in the national final. After that loss to Syracuse in New Orleans, Williams faced the difficult choice to stay in Lawrence or return to his alma mater. He chose North Carolina, and in six seasons, he has led the Tar Heels to three Final Fours and two title games.
Saturday, the Wildcats seemed more than happy to run with North Carolina. Unfortunately, their shots wouldn't fall. Villanova made 16 of 41 first-half field goal attempts and made only 2 of 12 first-half three-point attempts. Meanwhile, Lawson's penetration and Hansbrough's kamikaze style inside produced 14 first-half free throw attempts. For the night, Lawson and Hansbrough would combine to make 18 of 29 free throws.
As the previous statistic shows, the Tar Heels were far from perfect Saturday. They were outrebounded, 53-48, by a much smaller team, and Villanova had a 79-62 edge in shot attempts. Still, North Carolina got contributions from unexpected sources. For example, reserve guard Bobby Frasor led the team in offensive rebounds by grabbing five in just 19 minutes.
"It's something that we've emphasized all year long," Ellington said. "Just find a way."
Since Lawson returned from a toe injury in a second-round win against LSU, the Tar Heels have beaten their opponents by an average of 15.3 points. Throughout the tournament, they have played as many predicted they would six months ago. North Carolina, which returned its top six scorers from 2007-08, was the first unanimous preseason No. 1 in the 28-year history of the
Each of the past three seasons, North Carolina has taken another step. In 2007, the Tar Heels lost in overtime in the Elite Eight. Last year, they bowed to Kansas in the national semifinals. Monday, Carolina will try to take the ultimate step. "This is what we have been waiting for," guard Danny Green said. "We are happy with our win tonight, but we are not satisfied. We still have business to take care of."