The 2009 Final Four brought together three teams who had won relatively recent national championships—North Carolina in 2005, Michigan State in 2000, and UConn in 2004. They were joined by Villanova, no stranger to the winner’s circle themselves, with a historic 1985 title run. Here’s a look back at the road these teams took to Detroit and the 2009 Final Four, culminating with the Tar Heels winning it all.
A program only four years removed from an NCAA crown wouldn’t seem to be in need of redemption, but that was the feel around North Carolina coming into the 2009 college basketball season. The Tar Heels had reached the Final Four in 2008 looking very much like the team to beat. They played poorly in a Semifinal Saturday loss to eventual champion Kansas. Most of the key players for UNC were back in the fold and primed to make another run .
That core group started with center Tyler Hansbrough, who averaged 21 points/8 rebounds per game. Ty Lawson ran a fast-paced offense, averaging 17 points/7 assists. Danny Green was good for 13ppg. Wayne Ellington was on the wings, averaging 16 points/5 rebounds. Deon Thompson and Ed Davis hit the boards. North Carolina won the ACC by two games over Duke, sealing an outright regular season title with a head-to-head win in the finale. The Tar Heels were rewarded with the #1 seed in the South Region.
Opening weekend was scheduled for Greensboro. North Carolina hammered Radford 101-58 behind 25 points/8 rebounds from Ellington, 22 from Hansbrough and an impressive 15/10 line from Green. Two days later, Ellington and Lawson fueled the attack with 23 points apiece in an 84-70 win over LSU.
Memphis was the host city for the regionals and the South would be a power bracket, with the 1 thru 4 seeds all advancing. But even in this strong field, the Tar Heels were too much. Hansbrough went off for 24/10 against Gonzaga, with Ellington adding a 19/7 line. Lawson scored 19 and handed out nine assists. Carolina hammered the Zags 98-77.
Second-seeded Oklahoma had taken out Syracuse 84-71 behind a dominant 30/14 performance from national Player of the Year Blake Griffin and 28 points from Tony Crocker. Griffin had another good game against North Carolina, going for 23/16. But he didn’t get help and UNC could hit teams too many different ways.
On this day, it was in the backcourt. Green hit 18 points. Lawson wrapped up Most Outstanding Player for the regionals with a 19/5/5 line. North Carolina took a 32-23 lead at halftime and won 72-60. For the third time in five years, they were going to the Final Four.
Michigan State had reached four Final Fours under Tom Izzo, so the absence the Spartans had been on since 2005 seemed much longer than it would for most programs. This ’09 edition was led by Big Ten Player of the Year Kalin Lucas in the backcourt. Raymar Morgan was a double-digit scorer who also crashed the boards from the wings. And big Goran Suton anchored the middle, averaging 10 points/8 rebounds per game. Michigan State blew away the field in the Big Ten, winning the league by four games and earning the 2-seed in the Midwest Regional.
Sparty went north to the Twin Cities and opened tournament play in the Metrodome. A sloppy performance against Robert Morris was offset by a 43-25 rebounding advantage. Another defensive game followed against USC in the Round of 32 and this one was a battle. Once again, rebounding was the difference. Suton’s ten boards keyed a 33-24 edge on the glass. Sparty got some offense from Travis Walton, who knocked down 18. A 74-69 win punched Michigan State’s ticket to the Sweet 16 in Indianapolis.
A showdown with 3-seed Kansas, the defending national champion, was next. Once again, it was all about defense and the first half did not go well. Michigan State went to the locker room staring at a 36-29 deficit. But Suton was coming up big—not only did the big man deliver 20 points/9 rebounds, but he added five steals. The Spartans rallied in the second half and won 67-62.
Louisville was the #1 seed, both in the Midwest Regional and in the overall tournament. The Cardinals were fresh off shooting 58 percent in a 103-64 demolition of 12-seed Arizona in their own Sweet 16 game. Michigan State had been winning with defense to this point in the NCAA Tournament. Would that formula work against the Cardinals?
The answer was yes. Sparty shot a respectable 46 percent from the floor in the regional final. But the defining stat was holding Louisville to 38 percent shooting. Michigan State’s traditional rebounding edge held firm, 35-27. Suton went for 19/10. The Spartans won 64-52. Suton won Most Outstanding Player honors and Michigan State was going to be the crowd favorite in Detroit for the Final Four.
Jay Wright took over a Wildcat program that had been slipping since the magical March of 1985. Wright arrived in 2002. By 2005, he was turning out consistently good NCAA Tournament teams, including a 1-seed that made the Elite Eight in 2006. What he hadn’t done was reach a Final Four.
This year’s Villanova team was led by Dante Cunningham (16 points/8 rebounds per game) down low, along with Scottie Reynolds and Corey Fisher in the backcourt, who combined to score 26 ppg. The Wildcats went 26-7 through the regular season and Big East tournament. They finished in fourth place, although that deserves some context—the three teams ahead of them, Louisville, Pitt, & UConn, all got #1 seeds in this NCAA Tournament. Villanova was given the 3-seed in the East.
Villanova also got the reward of playing at home in Philadelphia on the first weekend. They would need the help. The Wildcats were in a 41-31 halftime hole against American University in the Round of 64. They got it turned around behind Cunningham and Dwayne Anderson, who combined for 50 points/15 rebounds. Villanova averted the scare and pulled away to an 80-67 win.
UCLA was up next, and while the Bruins were a 6-seed, they had made three straight Final Fours. But Villanova, with this writer in attendance, dominated the game. They controlled the glass to the tune of a 39-26 rebounding edge, and enjoyed a 20-11 advantage on turnovers. Cunningham’s 18/10 line led the way to a 89-69 win.
The Boston Garden was hosting the East Regionals and Villanova had a big battle with 2-seed Duke up in the Sweet 16. A hard-nosed defensive game was tight at the half, but the Wildcats led 26-23. In the second half, Villanova unloaded and shocked the country. They kept dominating defensively, holding the Blue Devils to 27 percent shooting on the night. With Cunningham posting a 14/11 line, ‘Nova blew it open and won 77-54.
Conference rival Pitt, the region’s top seed, was the last obstacle. The Panthers had beaten 4-seed Xavier 60-55 in a ho-hum game. Coming off the Sweet 16, there was no question Villanova was the hotter team.
A terrific basketball game, one that was essentially even across the board on stats, ensued. Anderson scored 17 points. Villanova had the ball under their own basket, in a 76-76 tie, with time for one more possession. Wright put the ball in Reynolds’ hands. The speedy guard raced coast-to-coast and scored. It capped a 15-point night, put Villanova in the Final Four and won Reynolds Most Outstanding Player honors. They had taken out UCLA, Duke, and Pitt in succession and more than earned their ticket to Detroit.
UConn was aiming to reach their first Final Four since head coach Jim Calhoun won his second national title in 2004. In 2006, the Huskies were the team to beat nationally and reached the Elite Eight. Then the greatest Cinderella story the NCAA Tournament has seen, that of little George Mason, got in the way and upset Connecticut. The Huskies were still looking to get back on college basketball’s biggest stage.
Hasheem Thabeet was an imposing force in the middle, going 7’3” and averaging 14 points/11 rebounds. In the backcourt, A.J. Price and Jerome Dyson could score, distribute, and go to the boards. Jeff Adrien was a tough power forward, whose 14/10 per-game average nearly matched Thabeet’s. UConn finished 27-4 and ran a close second to Louisville in the Big East race. The conference tournament ended early—a historic six-overtime loss to Syracuse in the quarterfinals. But the Selection Committee still gave Connecticut the #1 seed in the West.
The Huskies joined Villanova in Philadelphia for the opening weekend. Their defense completely smothered UT-Chattanooga, holding the 15-seed to 26 percent shooting in a 103-47 rout. The Round of 32 game with Texas A&M was almost as easy—a 92-66 rout, keyed by 27 points from Price and 23 more from Adrien.
Now it was time to pack for the long trip to Phoenix and the regionals. UConn’s defense, anchored by Thabeet, stayed smothering against 5-seed Purdue. Thabeet, in addition to his 15 points, grabbed 15 rebounds and blocked four shots. Price posted a 15/7/4 line and the Huskies won 72-60. The other Sweet 16 game in this bracket, saw 3-seed Missouri win a sizzling 102-91 decision over #2 Memphis. UConn’s defense would be tested in the regional final.
This one didn’t come quite as easy, but Connecticut still held Mizzou to 42 percent shooting from the floor. There were contributions throughout the lineup. Thabeet hauled down 13 rebounds. Adrien posted a steady 12/10 line. A freshman named Kemba Walker, who would electrify this tournament two years later, came off the bench and filled it up with 23 points. And Price’s 18 secured him the Most Outstanding Player honors. The final was 82-75 and UConn would be one of two Big East teams going to Detroit.
THE 2009 FINAL FOUR
Michigan State and UConn tipped off in the early evening semifinals. The Spartans got good performances from Lucas, who dropped 21, and Morgan, who delivered 18/9. But the real difference in this game was the bench. Sparty’s reserves outscored their Huskie counterparts 33-9. Michigan State won 82-73 and advanced to the Monday Night stage.
Villanova and North Carolina have developed a nice little history in the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats beat the Tar Heels in their 1985 run. UNC knocked out ‘Nova en route to their titles in 1982 and 2005. If we might fast-forward history, these two programs played an epic Monday Night battle in 2016, won a last-second three-pointer by Villanova.
In short, if the Wildcats and Tar Heels were playing in March, the winner had good things in store for them. Tonight, that was North Carolina. They held Villanova to 33 percent shooting. Lawson had an exquisite 22/7/8 line, while Ellington produced a 20/9/4. Hansbrough scored 18 points, grabbed 11 rebounds, and came up with four steals. Another comfortable win for Carolina came by an 83-69 score.
So, it was down to North Carolina and Michigan State for the national championship. The Spartans were the great story—playing close to home in a state that had been devastated The Great Recession that kicked in a year earlier.
But a great basketball team trumps a great story, and that’s what happened here. The Tar Heels were too good and too hot. They jumped out to a big lead early, led 55-34 by halftime and were never tested in an 89-72 final that didn’t feel even that close.
Hansbrough posted an 18/7 line, while Ellington scored 19 points. Ellington got Most Outstanding Player honors. But that’s an award that really should have gone to Lawson, who was dynamic again—22 points/7 rebounds/8 assists in the championship game.
North Carolina had more than redeemed themselves from the disappointment a year earlier. They had produced one of the most dominating NCAA Tournament runs ever seen.