Luke Winn: At The Dance
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  • 03:35 AM ET  04.07
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The 2009 Tar Heels took their place beside the 2005 champions with a dominating run through the NCAA tournament.
John Biever/SI

DETROIT -- The heckling always came in summertime pickup games at the Dean Dome, when players from North Carolina's 2005 national-title team would square off against the ringless members of the program's current roster. The worst offenders were Sean May, Raymond Felton, and Melvin Scott, who tended to end any dispute -- over things as trivial as foul calls -- by pointing to the rafters and asking, "Have you put a banner up there?" The answer, for the entire careers of current stars Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Tyler Hansbrough, had been no. And so in the aftermath of Monday's 89-72 national-championship game rout of Michigan State (RECAP | BOX), some of the Tar Heels' thoughts turned to bragging rights. As Lawson said, before breaking into one of his trademark, devilish grins, "I mean, what can they say now?"

Nothing, really, given the magnitude of the rout: The Tar Heels scored 55 first-half points and led by 21 at the break -- both title-game records -- and essentially put the game away in the first 10 minutes. It was an epic beatdown that brought Carolina its fifth championship and sucked the life out of a record crowd of 72,922 in Detroit, an economically struggling city that had rallied around Michigan State's fairy-tale ride to the final. Ellington was named MOP after scoring 19 points, but it was Lawson who was masterful, getting to the free-throw line for 18 attempts (and converting 15 of them) to finish with 21 points, six assists and an amazing eight steals.

On Sunday, he had reminisced about acting out approximately 20 different NCAA-championship buzzer-beater scenarios on his Fisher Price hoop as a child: "Sometimes I needed a three to win it, sometimes I was on the free-throw line, sometimes I was making a last-second drive when we were down one," Lawson said, "and we won every single time." But when a writer tried to goad Lawson into saying that he was dreaming of making an actual, last-second shot on Monday, he said, "I hope it won't be that close. I like blowouts better."

A blowout is exactly what Lawson got -- one much like the 35-point massacre that occurred the first time the two teams met, on Dec. 3, in the same building. He and Ellington had talked to each other about not starting slow, the way they did against Kansas in last year's Final Four, when they came out shell-shocked and fell behind 40-12. Instead, they were the ones giving Michigan State what coach Tom Izzo described as that "deer-in-the-headlights look," as the Spartans trailed 21-7, then 32-11, then 46-22 and 55-34 at half. Izzo's floor leader, senior guard Travis Walton, admitted that "it was a blur the first five minutes, when they jumped out on us so fast."

When the Tar Heels finally subbed out their starters, en masse, with 1:03 left in the game, they led 89-70, and Lawson still hadn't broken much of a sweat. "Close games are nerve-wracking," Lawson said. "When you have a blowout, everyone has fun. Even my boy Marc" -- he nodded toward walk-on Marc Campbell, who had replaced him -- "got in and got some time on a national stage."

As confetti streamed down from the Ford Field ceiling in the aftermath, the player who appeared to be having the most fun was the one who had, up to that point, been the most robotic and businesslike. Hansbrough, who arrived in Roy Williams' first recruiting class following that '05 national title, beamed as he bear-hugged his coach on the court, and later jumped into the arms of Carolina strength coach Jonas Sahratian, the man responsible for giving Hansbrough the nickname Psycho T during his freshman year. "This," Sahratian said, "was the biggest day of Tyler's life, I think. It's what he'd been working for."

Despite winning the Wooden and Naismith Awards as a junior, Hansbrough's legacy was ultimately going to be defined by whether or not he added a banner to the Dean Dome rafters. Sitting in the locker room with one of the nets around his neck, and 18 points and seven rebounds in the box score, Hansbrough felt he had put an appropriate coda on his college career, and declared, "Whoever said [I'm] not validated, I'm validated right now."

This win over Michigan State also validated the entire North Carolina team, which, like it or not, would have been regarded as an underachiever had it not won the national title. The Heels began the season as the AP Poll's unanimous No. 1, and were also heavy title favorites in Las Vegas -- but then they started 0-2 in the ACC, with losses to Boston College and Wake Forest, and, as Williams said, "everybody jumped off the ship." Their defense appeared to be lacking with senior specialist Marcus Ginyard out of the lineup, and Lawson in particular was being shown up by guards such as Tyrese Rice and Jeff Teague. But Williams gathered them together in the locker room after that second loss in Winston-Salem, and, in front of everyone, asked a question to assistant coach Steve Robinson, who had also been on Williams' staff at Kansas: "Coach, do you remember 1991, what we started out the season?"

"We started out 0-2," Robinson said.

"Do you remember where we finished that season?"

"We played Duke for the national championship."

And so Williams told his team that, if they did what the coaching staff asked, then they'd have a chance and "be there at the end."

The Tar Heels were more than just there in this NCAA tournament. They blitzed their way through the bracket, beating Radford by 43 in the first round, LSU by 14 in the second, Gonzaga by 21 in the Sweet 16, Oklahoma by 12 in the Elite Eight, Villanova by 14 in the Final Four and Michigan State by 17 in the final. Carolina only trailed its opponents for 10 minutes during the entire dance. They stepped up their defense, especially on the perimeter, when it became necessary, and put on an exhibition in the title game, forcing the Spartans in to 21 turnovers and just 40 percent shooting. Carolina lost just four games all season, but, as senior guard Bobby Frasor said, "If we had played D like this all year, it could have been special."

There was a sense, coming into Monday night's title game, that the Tar Heels might be running up against something special -- a pre-ordained, fairy-tale story for the state of Michigan. Legendary Spartans point guard Earvin "Magic" Johnson had called them a "team of destiny" on Saturday, and it seemed that Michigan State could be the right team (having knocked off two-straight No. 1 seeds), playing at the right time (the 30th anniversary of Magic's title) in the right city (Detroit, which desperately needed an emotional diversion from its failing auto industry). When the Spartans ran out of their locker room, point guard Kalin Lucas -- one of two Motor City products -- yelled, "Let's win this for the city!"

A raucous crowd -- clad in approximately 65 percent green and white -- was waiting for them in the stands, and those same fans lustily booed Carolina when it took the floor. Late Saturday night, after they beat Villanova to clinch a trip to the title game against the home-state team, Williams had told his players to prepare for the atmosphere at Ford Field as if it were more familiar, hostile territory: "Coach said, 'It's like going into Cameron again,'" said Frasor, referring to Duke's home court, where he and Hansbrough are 4-0. "And for us to make them quiet from the get-go, that was huge."

As the Spartans faded quickly, so did the power of their fan advantage. It took them until the 7:33 mark of the second half to reach the 55 points Carolina had scored in the first half, and the building was so quiet with 3:25 left in the game, and Carolina up 15, that a Michigan State dance team member could be heard saying, "C'mon, State! We still believe in you!" Not many others in the stands seemed to share that feeling. Seconds later, Lawson sunk two free throws to extend UNC's lead to 17.

Carolina came into the game exuding the confidence of a club that, as even Johnson admitted in a pregame press conference with 1979 NCAA final foe Larry Bird, was "the best team in basketball, when you look at it talent-wise." Izzo said on Sunday that the only way the Spartans could win was to have a game plan that altered Carolina's identity, because, "If we play good and they play good, we're losing." The Heels were unfazed by Izzo scheming that took them out of their transition game; they managed to win despite scoring just four fast-break points -- the same amount that Michigan State did. They taunted Sparty, Michigan State's mascot, in the tunnel beforehand -- Danny Green yelled in his face a few times, and someone said from a distance, "Sparty's just a b----!" When the Heels charged out of their locker room for the final time before the game began, they created an intimidating amount of noise in the tunnel, by clapping in rhythm, barking, and chanting "Here ... We ... Go!"

From there the Heels went, unfazed by the crowd, and steamrolled Michigan State to win what was expected of them in the preseason: the national title. After they'd watched One Shining Moment together on the floor, with Williams, who had the other net around his neck, standing amongst them, they raced back to the locker room to perform a final ceremony. As is Williams' tradition during the dance, there was an empty box drawn on their whiteboard prior to the game, waiting to be filled in. What goes inside the box is the number of teams left in the NCAA tournament. They'll typically gather 'round Williams to calculate the figure, but this time the math was easy. All that needed to be written was a giant number one.

 
May 20, 2012  01:31 PM ET

Cograts Tar Heels, me being from Detroit I was rooting for Michigan State to win it all but you guys deserved it.

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