North Carolina basketball had returned to prominence with an NCAA title in 2005, as Roy Williams pulled the program back up from a brief downturn. A year later, the Tar Heels were eliminated in the second round by the George Mason miracle team. Then UNC started churning out elite teams again.
They were a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament three straight years. 2007 ended with a crushing regional final loss to Georgetown. 2008 ended with disappointing Final Four loss to Kansas. The 2009 North Carolina basketball team had no such unhappy ending—they rolled all the way to a national title and did it in dominating fashion.
Tyler Hansbrough was the focal point player in the lineup. The 6’9” senior had made second-team All-American as a freshman, and then first-team each ensuing year, including the Wooden Award, as National Player of the Year in 2009. Hansbrough’s intensity got him the nickname “Psycho”, and he averaged 21 points/8 rebounds.
North Carolina had excellent all-around balance. Ty Lawson, the speedy point guard with an NBA future ahead, ran the show and could score as well, averaging 17 ppg. Wayne Ellington was a gifted scorer on the wings and knocked down 16 a night.
Deon Thompson was a solid power forward, scoring in double digits and preventing defenses from keying on Hansbrough down low. And Danny Green, one day destined to be a sharpshooter for the San Antonio Spurs, was hitting 42 percent from behind the arc at Carolina and averaging 13 a night.
The bench was strong, led by freshman Ed Davis, a big 6’10” forward who averaged seven rebounds a game. When Hansbrough decided to come back from his senior year, and Ellington, Green and Lawson withdrew from the NBA draft, North Carolina was a trendy pick to go all the way.
UNC lived up to expectations in December, winning their first 13 games. One of them was a 98-63 thumping of Michigan State in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge. The game was played at Ford Field, a place the Tar Heel players wanted to get very familiar with—it was the site of the 2009 Final Four. It turned out that game was more prophetic than anyone realized.
There was a brief hiccup to begin conference play, with losses to Wake Forest and Boston College. The Heels responded with ten straight wins, including a 101-87 win at Duke. An overtime loss at Maryland didn’t keep UNC from wrapping up a share of the regular season title prior to the season finale rematch with the Blue Devils. North Carolina then completed taking the outright ACC championship with a 79-71 win over a Duke team en route to a #2 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
The ACC Tournament is a prestige event in this conference, but North Carolina didn’t have the luxury of going all-out. Lawson had an injured toe and it was more prudent to rest him. Consequently, Carolina did not play well and lost in the semifinals to Florida State. But they were still a #1 seed in the South Regional, and the third seed nationally (trailing only Louisville and Pitt).
North Carolina opened the 2009 NCAA Tournament in their backyard of Greensboro by blowing out Radford and then comfortably handling LSU. It sent the Tar Heels on to Memphis for the South Regionals.
Gonzaga awaited in the Sweet 16, and at a #4 seed, it was one of the higher seeded Gonzaga entries. But they were no match for the Tar Heels, particularly up front. Hansbrough had 24 points/10 rebounds, Ellington had 19/7 and Lawson knocked down 19 of his own while handing out nine assists. North Carolina owned the glass, 40-28 and they won going away, 98-77.
It set up a big one-on-one battle in the regional final against Oklahoma. The Sooners were the #2 seed, and their focal point was forward Blake Griffin, who had supplanted Hansbrough as Player Of The Year. Although maybe “one-on-one battle” doesn’t tell the story. It was really Griffin and OU guard Willie Warren trying to stand in the way of a much deeper team.
Griffin pretty well dominated Hansbrough—23 points/16 rebounds for the Sooner, against 8/6 for Hansbrough. But North Carolina controlled everywhere else on the floor. The perimeter defense forced the Sooners into 2-of-19 from behind the arc and Lawson scored 19 points. For his combined 38 points and 14 assists over two games, Lawson got regional MVP and North Carolina won 72-60.
Now it was back to Detroit and the completion of the mission these players had all come back for. Villanova had blown out Duke and nipped Pitt to get here, so no one could take them lightly. But the Wildcats were heavily reliant on guard play and not nearly as big and physical as the Tar Heels.
Even though Hansbrough again did not play well, North Carolina played outstanding defense, holding ‘Nova to 33 percent shooting. UNC didn’t have a great game shooting the ball, but at 40 percent, it was still a little bit better than Villanova, and the Tar Heels made their shots count. UNC was 11/22 from three-point range, with four of them by Green. The final was 83-69.
The national title was one win away and the foe was familiar—Michigan State. The Spartans were playing in their backyard, but it did them no more good in April then it had in December. By the standards of entertainment for the fan without a rooting interest, this was the worst NCAA final since UNLV buried Duke by thirty points in 1990. North Carolina’s final victory margin was “only” 17, at 89-72. But they led by 21 at the half and blew the game wide open almost immediately after the opening tip.
North Carolina’s victory margins—each win by at least 12—set a new standard of excellence. Ellington, who had shot 14/26 from the floor in the two games in Detroit was named Final Four MVP. The 2009 North Carolina basketball team was one of the truly great teams in recent years and this time there was no denying them the national championship.