DETROIT - The hill stretches "about a quarter-mile," according to North Carolina forward Ed Davis, and it snakes through the bowels of Ford Field from the court to the locker rooms. Merely walking up the grade strains the calves and the stamina of those who haven't just played a basketball game. So why was everyone in Carolina blue - coaches included - sprinting up the thing after Saturday's 83-69 national semifinal win against Villanova (RECAP | BOX)?
Because it was a race. Actually, it was a rematch.
Not satisfied with walloping nearly every opponent this season, the Tar Heels are so hypercompetitive that that even the act of leaving the court has morphed into a game almost as important as the one they've just finished playing. The long, sloping tunnel at Ford Field only adds more spice to the track meet.
After Carolina thumped its national title game opponent, Michigan State, here on Dec. 3, coach Roy Williams ripped through the handshake line and tore off the court. "Coach Williams won - but he cheated," assistant Joe Halladay said. "He got out because he shook hands first." Head start or no, the fact that the 58-year-old Williams dusted his late teen and 20-something charges is pretty impressive.
So, after the Tar Heels dispatched Villanova on Saturday and Williams promised another charge up the hill during an interview with CBS, Carolina players took their marks. Guard Bobby Frasor was the rabbit, but he could sense the herd behind him. "I was leading everybody, then I saw them sprinting from behind me," Frasor said. "That put me into a different gear. I got back here first. I was out of breath, though."
That Frasor won Saturday shouldn't come as a surprise. He also led the Tar Heels in offensive rebounds with five in 19 minutes. On a night when Carolina's big men struggled with boxing out and with foul trouble, the 6-foot-3 Frasor stepped in and filled a need because, just like on the hill, he refused to be beaten.
That may be the critical difference between the 2009 Tar Heels and the ones who fell behind by 28 in the first half of a national semfinal loss against Kansas last year. To borrow a line from USC football coach Pete Carroll, they always compete. Naturally, they aren't always at the top of their games, but if everyone is competitive enough to turn the trip back to the locker room into the Boston Marathon, it's a safe bet someone will step forward to gut out an offensive rebound or poke away an entry pass.
It should come as little surprise which Tar Heel has turned the locker room race into bloodsport. Center Tyler Hansbrough, the ACC's all-time leading scorer, has developed a rivalry with assistant C.B. McGrath so intense that it's amazing someone hasn't lost a limb. Saturday, Hansbrough almost seemed happier about edging McGrath than he did about reaching the national title game that has eluded him.
"I beat C.B.," Hansbrough said. "That's the only one I wanted to beat."
Frasor said the rivalry boiled over after Carolina's Sweet 16 win against Gonzaga. "Tyler had to throw him out of the way," Frasor said. "It was probably a foul or something." Unfortunately, McGrath couldn't be interviewed for this story. After narrowly losing to Hansbrough and Frasor, he immediately began watching video of the Spartans. He's that fast.
Just not fast enough to beat freshman guard Larry Drew II after the first Michigan State win. "Just being the competitor that I am, I took it upon myself to beat Coach McGrath," Drew said. "He was right outside the door when I ran right by him."
Drew has a bit of an edge at Ford Field. The hill bears a striking resemblance to one on a street near his home in Encino, Calif. Still, Drew knows no advantage is enough when his fellow Tar Heels have a chance to grab a victory - no matter how meaningless it might seem. "This is what makes us unique as a team," Drew said. "We all want to win. If we don't win, we take that very seriously."
The Tar Heels will need every ounce of that competitiveness when they face the Spartans on Monday. Michigan State is a team with no stars, just a bunch of above-average blue-collar tough guys who want nothing more than to shock the basketball world in front of their home crowd. Carolina players know the team they'll see Monday bears little resemblance to the one they beat in December.
So what will it be, Tar Heels? Will you trudge up that hill while the Spartans celebrate and One Shining Moment plays? Or will you wear pieces of net for one last race?