In one of these bang-bang deadline situations, the one thing you hate is a game that looks like it’s going one way, then goes another. This one did that twice. Anyway, here’s the column in tomorrow’s final edition. Many of you will get a column that I filed right at the buzzer, instead.
I thought about posting, just to illustrate, the three or four other leads I wrote on this game. Might do that sometime. Anyway, here’s what I wound up writing on tonight’s game. No headline, not sure what headline they’ll put on it. . . . (EDIT: You’ll find the edition in the paper and online tomorrow is a bit shorter. Apparently, this wound up too long for the column space. So there will be some differences. I’ll leave this up, though).
On the University of Louisville’s road to the Final Four, Tobacco Road turned out to be an off ramp.
And here’s why.
The nation’s top-ranked team, North Carolina, and the likely NCAA player of the year, Tyler Hansbrough, both played like it. That they did it before a packed house in Charlotte Bobcats Arena, in a city where the Tar Heels have never lost an NCAA Tournament game, didn’t hurt.
But that was an aid that North Carolina honestly did not need in its 83-73 win over the Cardinals in the NCAA East Regional final.
“We’re a very good basketball team this year, very good,” U of L coach Rick Pitino said. “And they were better tonight.”
They were better down the stretch. Hansbrough delivered a couple of back-to-back daggers from the perimeter, both of them heavily defended, one of them falling down. When he hit the first in the key with 2:30 left to make it 73-66, it was over. When he hit the second, to make it 75-66, it was showtime.
What can you do? When the nation’s best player plays like it, it’s tough to counter.
NORTH CAROLINA ALSO WON because it was better for much of the first half.
U of L came in bent on running and pressing. For a while, it seemed like that might be akin to challenging Tyson Gay to a footrace. Like trying to out-putt Tiger Woods. Like asking Roger Federer for a game of tennis.
I’ll give this to Pitino. He stayed with that game plan, even when it seemed out of the Gen. George Custer playbook. After North Carolina sprinted past the Cards to a 12-point halftime lead — just one point shy of U of L’s largest deficit all season — he stayed on the gas. It had a little feel of that Kentucky-Kansas game when Pitino wouldn’t stop pressing and then-Jayhawks coach Roy Williams wouldn’t stop running.
And at halftime, you wondered if Williams’ team might not get to triple-digits again.
Every analyst this side of Dick Vitale was screaming that the Cardinals needed to slow it down. But they didn’t. They kept up the heat, and slowed North Carolina down.
What the pundits ignored was this — North Carolina had shredded U of L’s half-court defense, too, whether by sharp-shooting or put-backs.
“We played exactly the way we needed to play to beat them,” Pitino said. “We tied it up, had a chance to win. We played exactly the style we needed to play to win. . . . They just played better.”
THE TAR HEELS WON BECAUSE they were more experienced. They had lost in the Elite Eight last season. When crunch time came, they were a picture of poise. And David Green made two huge defensive plays on Earl Clark, bodying up behind him and then backing away while Clark dribbled — “pulling out the chair,” Pitino called it — inducing Clark to travel, after U of L had pulled even.
After tying the game at 59-59, two things happened. Hansbrough scored seven straight points, and U of L turned it over three times in the next three minutes.
The Tar Heels were too sound, to steely when the game meant the most.
Let’s say this for U of L. In a tournament in which the cream not only has risen to the top but bludgeoned its opponent, this game was competitive. U of L did not back down, did not panic in the most difficult of circumstances, in the most difficult regional challenge facing any team this season.
Winning in North Carolina, where the Tar Heels are now 25-1 in NCAA Tournament play, was an improbable challenge. But that’s the kind of challenge this U of L team thrived on this season.
It took a big effort from perhaps the nation’s best team and the nation’s best player on the equivalent of its home court to knock the Cardinals out. That’s about all there is to be said.