April 9, 2009

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By Anthony Oliva III

After a loss to eventual national champion Kansas in the 2008 Final Four, several North Carolina players from that talented team could have cashed in on their success and jumped to the NBA.

But they didn’t.

For seniors Tyler Hansbrough and Danny Green and juniors Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington, there was something left unfinished.

And, on April 4 in front of 72,922 people at Ford Field, those Tar Heels made good on their decision to come back in the form a convincing 89-72 victory over Michigan State in the national championship game.

Those UNC players put off the fame and fortune of the NBA, dealt with the lofty expectations of being preseason No. 1, battled injuries and a 0-2 start in the ACC, and still were able to wholeheartedly validate their decision to stay in Chapel Hill – by delivering North Carolina its fifth National Championship.

"This is the best way to go out. I couldn't picture it any other way," Hansbrough said in the postgame press conference.

Hansbrough, last year’s Naismith Trophy Winner, had one of the most storied college careers in recent memory. He was a three-time consensus All-American and finishes his career as the ACC’s all-time leading scorer. But, despite all the staggering statistics and records, it would not have been complete without a championship - especially since UNC had gotten so close in recent years and fallen short.

Not only did UNC lose in the Final Four last year, but it also suffered heartbreak when it lost to Georgetown in the Elite Eight in 2007.

“On coming back, I mean, sounds like I made a pretty good decision,” Hansbrough said. “Nothing beats this feeling right here.”

North Carolina defeated Villanova 83-69 in the national semifinal.

Even Ellington, who was tempted by the NBA himself, was pleased to help get this title for the seniors, including Hansbrough, Green and others.

“Our seniors, you know, mainly we wanted to do it for those guys,” said Ellington, who was named NCAA Tournament MVP. ”They've been through so much. We had a lot of adversity this year, lost two games, everybody doubted us. It just felt great. It's a feeling that you really can't explain unless you experience it.”

And they wouldn’t have been able to experience it if they all hadn’t made the commitment to come back and make a run at that elusive title.

And what a run it was.

The Tar Heels were dominant in the tournament, outscoring opponents - which included SEC West Champion LSU, WCC Champion Gonzaga and Big 12 power Oklahoma - by over 20 points a game, and it’s not hard to figure out how.

Hansbrough, Lawson, Ellington and Green all did their part, showing why they all have the potential to play professionally.

Hansbrough had two 20-point games in the tournament and scored 36 points and grabbed 18 rebounds in the Final Four. He graduates as the fourth all-time leading scorer in NCAA tournament play with 325 points – in addition to the title of North Carolina’s all-time leading scorer.

Lawson, who missed the first round game against Radford, scored at least 19 points in every tournament game, averaged nearly seven assists and had a NCAA Championship game-record eight steals against the Spartans.

Ellington scored at least 19 points in five of six tournament games and shot eight-for-10 from three-point range in the Final Four and Danny Green added 12 points and nearly five assists in the tournament, right around his season averages.

“Roy Williams is not that good,” UNC head coach Roy Williams said. “But, boy, old Roy has got some big-time players, and that's what it takes.”

When you add the contributions of these four along with starting forward Deon Thompson, who averaged over 10 points a game for the year, Ed Davis, a 6-foot-10 defensive presence off the bench and Bobby Frasor, the senior point guard who averaged nearly 20 minutes a game in the tournament and has been a significant contributor since his freshman year, it’s no surprise that the Tar Heels (34-4) were so dominant. 

"You've got six NBA players that could be drafted in the first round or early second," Michigan State guard Travis Walton said. "You're looking at a team that could probably beat the worst team in the NBA."

Hansbrough and Green will undoubtedly test the NBA waters since they are graduating and underclassmen Lawson and Ellington have yet to make an announcement about their futures, but when they, along with the seniors, leave Chapel Hill, they will know that their decision to stay looks like a good one.

And, they finished what the started.