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April 1, 2008
CHARLOTTE, N.C. ? Reaching the Elite Eight is a worthy accomplishment. But losing there is the last thing you ever want to do as a player.
Losing in the Elite Eight means watching another team celebrate its trip to the Final Four, the trip you were sure was going to be yours. It's knowing someone you were just guarding has cut down the net and is wearing it around his neck like an Olympic gold medal while you sit in a morose locker room with your head in your hands.
The North Carolina Tar Heels knew the feeling. The Tar Heels, ranked No. 1 and seeded No. 1, led second-seeded Georgetown 75-65 with 6:02 to play in last season's East Regional final. But the Hoyas rallied and won in overtime.
The collapse had been epic. The Heels missed 22 of 23 shots during a 15-minute span that went into overtime. The nets they were supposed to cut down suddenly had become nooses. Whether the word was used, they had choked.
Those same feelings crept back Saturday. Here the Tar Heels were, ranked No. 1 and seeded No. 1, in the same East Regional final, having surrendered all of a ? gulp ? 10-point second-half lead. Louisville had tied the game at 59 with 10:21 to play. The decidedly pro-Heels crowd was decidedly antsy.
"Yeah, I mean, it (the Georgetown game) was in the back of a lot of our minds," UNC junior forward Tyler Hansbrough said. "One thing about it (this time) ? there was that point where they went on that run and I think the difference this year is we handled it better and stayed poised and came back. We got some points and kept fighting back until eventually we had a run."
The run was due in no small part to Hansbrough, who was hell-bent on not watching someone else cutting down nets. He scored 11 points in the final 10:21, including five in a row after the Cardinals had tied it. North Carolina prevailed 83-73.
"I think there were times when I became more active and my teammates got me the ball," said Hansbrough, who finished with 28 points ? 20 in the second half ? and 13 rebounds. "Certain times when things aren't falling outside, we try to get the ball inside, and I just happened to demand the ball and got some looks."
There was joy ? and relief. The players also talked about there being more out there.
"We're very excited to get to this point, but we continue to have that same attitude that, you know, we have more work to do," junior Marcus Ginyard said. "This team has continued to show that when we need to dig deeper and play better and play harder and play smarter, we do.
"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. And that's what you need; you need a team that's going to be tough enough not to give in and continue to push forward."
The Heels have pushed all the way to the Final Four, their first since 2005. The seeds were sewn after the loss to the Hoyas, a loss that steeled them for a summer of conditioning, drills and hard work.
"I think we're more mature, we're more experienced," UNC coach Roy Williams said. "Last year Ty (Lawson), Wayne (Ellington) and Brandan (Wright), three of our starters, were freshmen, so the run through the NCAA Tournament was their first. So I think the experience has been worth something to us. ? Last year in close games, we lost a lot of those games that we won this year, so I think the experience and the maturity is the big difference."
Wright left early for the NBA. But Lawson and Ellington join Hansbrough and Ginyard in the starting lineup, along with power forward Deon Thompson.
The goal now is to finish as strongly as the 2005 team. It won Williams' first national championship, the fourth in school history. The coach says his team is focused, and he says he's just as hungry for his second title as he was his first.
"I think sometimes I work even harder because I would like to do it again," Williams said. "Part of the drive for me, if we were to ever ? this year, 2020 ? if we were ever to do it again, I would enjoy it more. I made some mistakes. I didn't enjoy it enough. I didn't allow my staff to enjoy it enough.
"We win Monday night, April 4, went home Tuesday, April 5, took my staff out to dinner and finished at 10. Six the next morning, I met (assistant) Coach (Joe) Holladay in the parking lot and we went on a recruiting trip. I would enjoy it more."
Bob McClellan is the college basketball editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.