Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Hansbrough's Singular Focus Propels UNC to No. 1

By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 7, 2009; 11:00 AM

DETROIT -- Gene Hansbrough remembers the way his middle son looked before each and every wrestling match, and how he certainly knew better than to try to talk to his boy. As a 9-year-old preparing to grapple at some youth tournament in southeastern Missouri, Tyler Hansbrough would stare blankly at anything that wasn't his opponent and start to shake.

"He gets in a game mode and he starts thinking about what he has to do, and he works toward that goal," Gene Hansbrough said. "He's not going to talk about it, but it's just a quiet confidence and a single-mindedness."

Gene Hansbrough said his son gave up wrestling long ago. Too lanky. Got tied up like a pretzel. But Tyler Hansbrough found another sport more to his liking, and on Monday night, he reached its pinnacle at the college level. A star-studded North Carolina squad put away Michigan State, 89-72, to claim the national title, and when it was over, there may have been no Tar Heel more relieved than the 6-foot-9 senior from Poplar Bluff, Mo.

"I've always talked about being part of a championship," Hansbrough said. "And I'm glad I'm just part of something special on this team."

For the better part of four years, Hansbrough was chided, mocked even, for his unrelenting focus. He didn't smile a whole lot and rarely said anything interesting. He claimed he didn't even like to watch college basketball outside of the game film used for preparation, though his father debunked that notion.

As it turned out, North Carolina -- "a NBA team kind of that can maybe beat the worst team in the NBA probably," according to Michigan State guard Travis Walton -- needed more of Hansbrough's tunnel vision.

From the season's outset, much was expected of the Tar Heels, who fell to Kansas in the Final Four in 2008. After four of five starters from that team spurned the NBA to return to Chapel Hill, chatter was not confined merely to a national title. Rather, this squad was thought to possess enough talent to go undefeated.

It did not. North Carolina fell at home to Boston College on Jan. 4 and then again a week later at Wake Forest. It lost in overtime at Maryland on Feb. 21, squandering a nine-point lead with 1 minute 54 seconds left in regulation, and bowed out of the ACC tournament with a loss to Florida State in the semifinals.

Talent-wise, the Tar Heels were undoubtedly superior to any of those teams, but as junior forward Deon Thompson pointed out on Sunday, "We have a tendency to let up and let teams back in."

So when North Carolina carried a 21-point lead into halftime on Monday night against Michigan State -- a team the Tar Heels defeated by 35 on Dec. 3 -- there was little joy or contentment in either locker room.

The Spartans did attempt to push their way back into contention. They cut North Carolina's lead to 13 with just less than five minutes remaining. The largely pro-Michigan State crowd rose to its feet voiced its approval, but the green-clad audience members quickly were silenced.

North Carolina point guard Ty Lawson dashed into the lane for a layup. When Lawson sank a pair of free throws moments later to push the Tar Heels' lead back to 17, a mass exodus occurred at Ford Field.

"I like it when it's quiet and you see people leaving early," North Carolina senior guard Bobby Frasor said. "Since our first big win at Kentucky my freshman year, I've always enjoyed seeing that."

With just more than one minute remaining, the Tar Heels' key contributors were subbed out of the game so that the seldom-used reserves could bask in the spotlight, as well. Along the North Carolina sideline, there were handshakes and high-fives and bear hugs galore.

The Tar Heels claimed the national crown in spectacular fashion, as they had been expected to since November. When asked whether anything shy of a championship won in April would have been a disappointment for this particular squad, junior guard Wayne Ellington nodded in agreement.

"It would have felt a little bit like that, just knowing that we had all the tools and all the potential," said Ellington, who along with Lawson and Danny Green declared for the NBA draft last spring before electing to return to college.

Though he never entered his name into the draft, Hansbrough weighed the risks and rewards of jumping to the NBA early. But despite all the accolades Hansbrough had already garnered and would add to this season, the prevailing notion was that his college career somehow would be considered a failure should he not win a national title at North Carolina.

Gene Hansbrough said there never was much doubt that his son would return for his senior year.

"Tyler is compulsive about things he has to get done in a certain time," the father said.

Over the past five months, Tyler Hansbrough has become the ACC's all-time leading scorer and earned all-American honors for the fourth consecutive year. When asked to list the best moment of his college career, though, Hansbrough referenced the confetti raining down around him 20 minutes after his legacy had been finalized.

Teammates Marcus Ginyard, who shares a house in Chapel Hill with Hansbrough and Frasor, said he'd never seen Hansbrough so relaxed as during the aftermath of North Carolina's title win. And indeed, as he wandered about all the postgame commotion, an irremovable smile was plastered across his face.

"You know, it's been some pressure on the outside," Hansbrough said. "But we stayed within our team and we got the job done."

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