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THEY COMMENCED THE SEASON WITH THEIR HEADS PRESSED AGAINST the ceiling of expectation, where only historic greatness would suffice. They ended it by winning the national championship as despised spoilers, literal visitors against a team riding the desperate passions of an entire state battered by economic ruin. From beginning to end, their season was a no-win proposition, and yet North Carolina won just the same, with an efficiency that fulfilled every inch of November's demand.
On the night of April 6 at Ford Field in Detroit, the Tar Heels dismantled Michigan State 89-72 and muted the Spartans' horde of followers, who constituted the vast majority of the championship-game record crowd of 72,922.
North Carolina led by 16 points before seven minutes had elapsed, a ruthless assault that transformed the rest of the game into a formality. It was a performance that provided sweet validation for four Tar Heels—seniors Tyler Hansbrough and Danny Green, and juniors Wayne Ellington and Ty Lawson—who returned for this season when they might have left Chapel Hill. "It was the best decision I ever made," said Hansbrough when it was over, standing on the court with one of the nets hanging from his neck. "All the hard work I put in, all the tough practices, all the weight room [sessions], that was what this was about."
It was also about a legendary program digging itself deeper into college basketball's rich earth. North Carolina has now won five national titles and four since the UCLA dynasty ended in 1975, more than any other school. And it was about a dominant run through the postseason, when the Tar Heels beat six opponents by an average of 20.2 points, the second-highest margin of victory since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985.
But just as much, it was about a sublime collection of athletes, rare in the age of early departures for the NBA. None was better on the final night than Lawson, the 5' 11" point guard who, like Ellington and Green, explored the possibility of leaving for the NBA last spring but returned to improve himself and to chase a national title. On the afternoon of the championship game, Lawson was so nervous that he could barely touch his pregame meal of chicken, steak, rice and potatoes. But hours later he went out and devoured Michigan State with a game-high 21 points, eight steals and six assists, with just one turnover.
Ellington, a 6' 4" wing player, won the Most Outstanding Player award after scoring 17 of his 19 points in the first half, and Hansbrough pounded the Spartans for 18 points and seven rebounds. When it was finished, he pointed animatedly to his father, Gene, in the first row of the stadium's sweeping bleachers. His dad pointed back. "He's been all business this week," said Gene. "No discredit to Detroit, but they could have played this game in the Amazon and it wouldn't have mattered to Tyler."
While media and Michiganders alike flocked to the feel-good story of Michigan State, North Carolina simply went to work. That intensity carried into the locker room on the night of the final, when UNC coach Roy Williams infused his pregame speech with raw emotion that his players said was unlike anything they had heard all year. "They have a lot of want-to," Williams implored. "They're playing for their state, their city, for the economy. Well, we're playing for ourselves and everything we've worked for. We're going to exceed their want-to. Invest everything. Don't come back in here with anything left!" Scarcely half an hour later Michigan State was reeling from the onslaught.
IT ALL BEGAN IN THE WEIGHT ROOM at the Dean E. Smith Center in Chapel Hill, three weeks after an 84-66 loss to Kansas in the 2008 NCAA semifinals, a loss so devastating that Williams says it will haunt him forever. Hansbrough has never viewed the tape, and Lawson calls the game the worst of his life. Immediately, fans were demanding to know if Hansbrough, the national player of the year and a three-time All-America, would return for a fourth season.
Hansbrough had repeatedly told Williams he was coming back, and Williams had repeatedly pressed him further. Did you tell your parents yet? When Hansbrough finally did, Williams tried to drag him upstairs to draft a press release announcing his decision. The process had exhausted Hansbrough; he was weary of discussing himself and desperate to get back to his routine.
"I've been miserable for two weeks," he told Williams. "I'm staying here, and I'm really happy for the first time since the end of the season. So why don't you go on upstairs and write something you think I'd say, and I'll stay here and finish my workout?"