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March 29, 2008

Tar Heels advance to Final Four

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - A pocket of fans in the lower level of Bobcats Arena started a chant of Tyler Hansbrough's name.

Roy Williams got on the microphone to thank the Carolina blue-clad crowd.

The North Carolina band struck up a rendition of House of Pain's "Jump Around" while Danny Green did just that.

And eventually, the Tar Heels took turns climbing a ladder, clad in brand new championship hats and T-shirts, to cut down the nets after winning the East Regional of the NCAA Tournament with an 83-73 victory against Louisville.

It was a far cry from the feeling the top-seeded Tar Heels had a year ago at this time, when they watched a double-digit lead evaporate against Georgetown and had their dreams of a Final Four snatched away from them painfully.

"I had a thought in the back of my head," Green said. "This team is making a run. We don't want what happened last year to happen this year."

Green wasn't alone in being worried when Louisville tied the game with 10 minutes remaining.

"It was in the back of a lot of our minds," Hansbrough said. "The difference this year is we handled that run and stayed poised and kept fighting back until we had a run."

Hansbrough was the one who led the resurgence for the Tar Heels (36-2) by notching 28 points and 13 rebounds.

Over a five-minute stretch in the second half, Hansbrough scored 10 points in a row for the Tar Heels, who desperately needed the buckets to stave off the Cardinals' comeback bid.

Louisville (27-9) had erased a 12-point halftime deficit to tie the game before Hansbrough took over and gave Carolina some more breathing room.

"There were times where I just became more active," Hansbrough said. "I just happened to demand the ball and got some looks."

Some of the looks weren't that great, either.

But whether it was a layup or an 18-footer with the shot clock running down, Hansbrough knocked down the shot.

"The reason he made that shot is he's made it hundreds of times already," said UNC coach Roy Williams, alluding to Hansbrough's practice habits.

There was no denying the déjà vu for the Tar Heels after Louisville tied the game at 59 with a little more than 10 minutes to go on a pair of free throws by Earl Clark.

Another East Regional final.

Another Big East team.

Another double-digit lead gone.

But several UNC players said they didn't even realize at the time that the game was tied.

They were well aware, however, that the Cardinals were making a push. And they hadn't forgotten how the season ended a year ago, so this time they were ready.

"This team has continued to show that when we need to dig deeper and play better, play harder, play smarter, we do," Marcus Ginyard said. "And I think that just shows how good this team really is. Every time we get into those sticky situations, we always get ourselves out."

Just like in last year's season-ending loss against Georgetown, UNC's outside shooters struggled to knock down shots once the team had a lead.

Wayne Ellington, who had 11 first-half points, went 0 for 4 in the second half and his only points came on a pair of free throws.

Green, similarly, was 0 for 3 in the second half.

Hansbrough single-handedly, it seemed, kept the Tar Heels' Final Four hopes alive.

"If he didn't make those, it could have changed our whole season," Green said. "We'd be going home."

Now the Tar Heels can forget about the Georgetown game that motivated them all season.

They have shaken off the ghosts of one East Regional final with a win in another.

"It just kind of takes all of those past experiences away," Hansbrough said. "But we want something more."

That something more, obviously, is a national championship.

But for now, after all of the work to get to the Final Four in the first place instead of falling excruciatingly short, the trip to San Antonio was reason enough for the Tar Heels to celebrate.

"There have been a lot of ups and downs over the season," forward Deon Thompson said. "This moment did seem so far away."


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