April 4, 2009
THE INSIDE LOOK - The season comes to a close in the Final Four
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DETROIT, Mich. (AP) - In a classic case of men vs. boys, North Carolina never gave Villanova much chance to breathe, let alone whip up a fresh dose of Final Four magic.
Ty Lawson scored 22 points, Wayne Ellington had 20 more, and the Tar Heels, with their four, five, maybe more NBA-caliber players, eased to an 83-69 win Saturday night over the plucky but overmatched Wildcats.
Tyler Hansbrough had 18 points and 11 rebounds to mark a quite successful return to the Final Four after a remarkable dud last year in a semifinal loss to Kansas. Next up, North Carolina (33-4) goes for its second title in five years Monday against Michigan State, an 82-73 winner over Connecticut.
The Spartans, located 90 miles up the road in East Lansing, will certainly have the crowd on their side. The talent gap, though? Eek. They'll have to be at least 35 points better than they were in December when the teams met in this same building - a 98-63 UNC romp.
"Had no idea about that," coach Roy Williams said if he ever anticipated a rematch. "Knew that we'd played very, very well that night."
Meanwhile, Villanova (30-8) ends a successful season two wins short of its first title since 1985, when Rollie Massimino coaxed one of the greatest upsets in sports history out of his guys - 66-64 over Patrick Ewing, John Thompson and Georgetown.
Thompson was on press row doing radio and Massimino was chomping his gum nervously behind the Villanova bench, part of the record crowd of 72,456 at Ford Field - which was half gone and streaming toward the exits with five minutes left.
But James Naismith himself probably couldn't have helped 'Nova out of this one.
North Carolina simply has too much talent.
Last year, in one of the more inexplicable performances in Final Four history, the Tar Heels trailed Kansas 40-12 midway through the first half.
This time, they led 40-23.
"I've been there. I was there a year ago," Williams said. "It feels like somebody jerks your heart out and shakes it."
Ellington made five of his first six shots, including a 3-pointer after a perfect crosscourt pass over the top from Danny Green. Nobody had an answer for Hansbrough, who once found himself bodied up with Dante Cunningham, faked left, then spun to the baseline and saw no more resistance - a way-too-easy layup.
Lawson, he of the injured toe and the successful trip to the craps table in downtown Detroit a few nights previous - well, he stayed on a roll, going 5-for-11 with eight assists and seven rebounds. Had he shot better than 10-for-17 from the line, this game might have been more lopsided.
And so, what began as tournament with great potential for the Big East - three top seeds, two in the Final Four - will end with the conference on the sideline.
No disrespect to Villanova, which did, in fact, make this interesting for a brief time. The Wildcats cut the deficit to five early in the second half and it could have been three, but Cunningham's jumper went halfway in before cruelly rimming out.
Green answered with a 3-pointer, then the Tar Heels got a steal and layup from Lawson to push the lead back to 10. That took all of 64 seconds.
"We're happy," Williams said. "We're going to enjoy the dickens out of this one for a while."
Though the rest of the second half was a jumbled mess for both teams - which allowed Villanova to stay in shouting distance - the Wildcats never got it back under double digits.
It was a typical no-quit effort from coach Jay Wright's group of seasoned upperclassmen, who battled through the Big East and started putting it together come tournament time.
Scottie Reynolds will always have that indelible end-to-end game-winning layup against Pittsburgh last weekend that got Villanova to its Final Four since '85. His first basket in this one, however, didn't come until more than nine minutes were gone and the deficit was in double digits. He finished with 17 points on 6-for-18 shooting.
Cunningham, the Wildcats' leading scorer and rebounder this season, led them again with 12 and 12.
A lot of the Villanova stats didn't look so bad. They got five more rebounds and were even in the turnover battle. They hustled and dove on the floor all night.
But as the game was getting out of reach early, they simply couldn't defend. North Carolina shot 67 percent while opening that 17-point lead in the first half. The Tar Heels led 49-40 at halftime.
And the Wildcats couldn't shoot. 'Nova shot 33 percent from the floor, not exactly the 78.6 percent from that "perfect game" back in '85. They were even worse from 3-point range - 5-for-27. And there were way too many scenes reminiscent of big brother vs. little brother: Where the Villanova player would drive the middle, make a few head fakes and the Carolina guy would just stand there, wait for the histrionics to end and block or alter the shot.
It was, quite simply, what it looks like when a roster of very good college players goes up against a team full of NBA-caliber talent.
Hansbrough. Freshman forward Ed Davis. Lawson. Green. Ellington. The last three in that group actually considered the NBA after last season but didn't get the right feedback from scouts. Another year of seasoning couldn't hurt, they figured, and that made the Tar Heels the team to beat starting in preseason, when they were the unanimous No. 1 in the Associated Press poll.
The last time the Heels were No. 1 at the beginning and the end was 1982 - when a guy named Michael Jordan wore Carolina Blue.
Yes, there were hiccups along the way, such as when the Tar Heels lost their first two ACC games, and when Lawson missed three games with the toe - one of an assortment of injuries they endured.
But none of it was enough to derail this ride from Tobacco Road to Motown. Carolina has won every tournament game by 12 or more. Now, Williams finds himself one win away from leading his alma mater to its fifth national championship.