MEMPHIS, TENN. — When North Carolina forward Tyler Hansbrough climbed the ladder at FedExForum on Sunday night, snipped his segment of the net and raised a celebratory fist to the cheering Tar Heels fans, one thing became apparent:
It doesn't matter whether he's the best player in the country. Because once again, he plays for a Final Four team.
Despite watching their star senior get outdueled by Oklahoma star sophomore Blake Griffin, the Tar Heels dominated the Sooners 72-60 with their depth, defense and dynamic point guard Ty Lawson.
As a result, they will play Villanova, the East Region winner, at approximately 8:47 p.m. Saturday in Detroit for the right to advance to the national title game. It marks UNC's 18th trip to the Final Four, equaling UCLA's record number of appearances (although the Bruins' 1980 trip was later vacated by the NCAA).
"It felt great to get up there and cut down the net again,'' said Hansbrough, who still bristles at the bitter memory of losing in the national semifinals last season. "I've felt a lot of pressure -- and I just felt relief. There's been a lot of expectations on this team ... and for me, it feels good to be going back."
The pre-game hype was all about the showdown between Hansbrough, the 2008 consensus national player of the year, and Griffin, who is expected to sweep the awards this year. But in the end, the head-to-head numbers made little impact.
Hansbrough picked up his second foul barely seven minutes into the game, played only 26 minutes and recorded only eight points -- marking only the ninth single-digit scoring effort of his career.
But Griffin, who finished with 23 points, couldn't take on the rest of the Tar Heels all by himself. And for most of the game, it looked like that was exactly what he had to do -- as he passed out of aggressive rotating double teams, only to have his teammates' shots go clink, clank and clunk.
"After I caught it a few times in the block and saw how they were doubling, how they were rotating, I tried to make my moves a little faster and pick my spots a little better, said Griffin, who also pulled down 16 rebounds.
But it wasn't enough, not while he shot 9-for-12, and the rest of his team shot only 35.7 percent.
"I thought the game would have been a lot more interesting if we could have made some shots -- and I though we had some really good looks,'' Oklahoma coach Jeff Capel said. "But that's the way basketball goes sometimes."
Indeed, UNC (32-4) clamped down early, taking a Sooner-depressing 13-2 lead as OU (30-6) missed six of its first seven shots.
Meanwhile, UNC forward Danny Green, a member of the all-tournament team, scored 14 of his 18 points in the first half -- including a 3-pointer that bounced off the rim twice before it fell through.
Lawson, voted the Most Outstanding Player of the South Regional, scored 15 of his 19 points in the second half.
And even though shooting guard Wayne Ellington (nine points) was held to single digits for the first time since Dec. 28, his defense helped hold Big 12 Freshman of the Year Willie Warren (18 points) to 6-for-16 shooting.
"We're a pretty good team -- emphasis on 'team' there,'' UNC senior guard Bobby Frasor said. "We're not just throwing the ball into Tyler, hoping he can score the ball every time. Danny stepped up big tonight, [and] Ty had another great performance. Even off the bench, Larry [Drew II] had the tip-in, and Justin [Watts] gave us solid minutes. We're a really well-rounded basketball team."
The Sooners tried to make a run late, reeling off nine straight points -- including their first 3-pointer after 15 misses -- to cut UNC's 61-40 lead to 61-49. But Lawson made two free throws with 4:12 left to stop the run and effectively seal UNC's second straight trip to the Final Four.
And a second straight trip up the ladder to cut down the regional nets.
"I said that if we win and [Tyler] scores eight, he's going to be the happiest person in the world,'' UNC coach Roy Wi lliams said. "That's the way he is. He's interested in his team winning."
Indeed, while Hansbrough (2-for-4 shooting, six rebounds) was impressed by Griffin's performance, he seemed more thrilled by his teammates' ability to fill his scoring void -- pointing out as he did before the game that it wasn't about Hansbrough vs. Griffin, but UNC vs. Oklahoma.
"We have some depth, and some guys are stepping up, and hopefully that keeps happening -- that if one guy is playing bad, the others are there to help out,'' Hansbrough said.
It was a Final Four-securing formula. Now he hopes it's a national title-winning formula, as well.
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