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March 29, 2009Ty Lawson said that his toe feels fine, and Tyler Hansbrough is focused on doing whatever it takes to win.
North Carolina, ranked second in the final poll and seeded No. 1 in the South Region of the 2009 NCAA Tournament, will now try to take advantage of all its done for the last several years in growth and preparation for this moment.
At approximately 5:05 p.m., UNC (31-4) will play second-seeded Oklahoma (30-5) with national player of the year Blake Griffin. The winner advances to play Villanova in next Saturday's Final Four semifinals in Detroit. The game will be televised by CBS, and it will be preceded by Louisville against Michigan State in the Midwest Region final.
"I'm just trying to win ball games," Hansbrough said. "I guess you could say I'm a little more focused because it is my last go around. ... Yeah, I'm taking this pretty serious."
The Tar Heels' performance in this tournament so far would say they are all ready. They gave a clinic on how to put a team away against Louisiana State and dismantled the No. 10 team in the country in Gonzaga.
"I think we're playing good at the right time," Lawson said. "Everything is starting to click. Everybody's playing to their strengths, and everybody's playing real well. On the defensive end, we're picking it up. We're rotating, getting a hand up on shots. I think just the defensive end is where we're picking up more. That's why we're playing so well right now."
The Sooners have played a variety of styles this season, often running the court. Nonetheless, OU coach Jeff Capel, a former player at Duke, said that he does not want to try to match UNC in a full-court game.
"I used the analogy with our guys this morning," Capel said on Saturday, "I'm a huge boxing fan. It's like when Muhammad Ali fought George Foreman. He couldn't go out there and slug with Foreman. He had to find a tactical way. I don't know if it's going to be effective, but we're going to try to do that.
"The thing that makes them so special, North Carolina, is they can beat you any way. They can beat you their way. They can slow it down and grind it out because they have so, so many weapons. That's what poses such a great challenge for everyone that's played them."
More than anything, however, what may separate UNC and the manner in which the Tar Heels have been performing is the combination of poise and skill with which they have played. The benefit of being together for three years for the juniors and four for the seniors on this team shows in how these kids have approached each game and the way in which they execute what Coach Roy Williams wants to see.
They got away from that for a moment against Gonzaga, but after an uncharacteristic timeout by Williams in the second half, they quickly returned to what they were supposed to do. As a result, they outscored the Bulldogs 12-0 in a quick run and blew the game wide open.
Senior Bobby Frasor exemplifies the experience and confidence of this entire group. He took and hit a pair of three-pointers right when UNC needed it from him. He has struggled with his shot for much of this season, but he played as a veteran with no fear in that moment of need.
"The crazy thing [against Gonzaga] is I got really disappointed," Williams said. "Wayne [Ellington] turned it over underneath. Danny [Green] took a bad shot. Tyler threw it away. Wayne turned it over up top. Somebody else took a bad shot, and I called a timeout.
"We set up a set play. We ran the set play, and Bobby came out and ended up making the three. Now, honesty always pays. I wanted Ty to throw it to the other side, and that would have meant Wayne would be coming off the screen, as opposed to Bobby. But when Bobby got the ball, I wanted him to shoot it because now we'd gotten back into team play instead of the five or six possessions we hadn't, and it went in.
"The very next possession down, when he pulled up and shot it, I didn't like the shot. I yelled, Bobby, good shot, just like everybody else does."
Oklahoma has a great player in Griffin and a superb overall team that has won throughout this season, but Carolina has a group of players who have paid their dues for several years. If they can continue to execute what they have been taught and the ball goes in the basket, the Tar Heels could get the opportunity they have worked for the last 12 months to earn: another trip to the Final Four and possibly a chance to win the national championship.
"Last year," Lawson said of losing to Kansas at the Final Four, "it was just tough because of how we lost. But we fought back, so I think that was good for us. The way we fought back showed real heart.
"That's what's driven us the whole summer. That's why I put up shots, late nights and things like that, to get back to this spot. I want things like that to happen again. All of us have worked so hard all season to get back to the position we're in right now."