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Sunday, March 30, 2008
No surprise: The hardest-working player in college hoops was the hero

By Andy Katz
ESPN.com

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- North Carolina coach Roy Williams was walking back to the locker room and still couldn't get over the work ethic of Tyler Hansbrough.

Tyler Hansbrough
A fierce competitive nature has helped Tyler Hansbrough lead UNC to the Final Four.
"He spent two-and-a-half hours in the gym on our off day last Monday taking shots," said Williams, shaking his head in disbelief.

What did you expect? Of course Hansbrough would be in the gym molding his craft on an off day.

Who did you think would take over the Elite Eight game against Louisville if not Hansbrough?

"I mean, he deserves every accolade and all the success he gets," said Louisville senior forward David Padgett after the No. 3-seeded Cardinals fell to top-seeded North Carolina 83-73 in a powder-blue dominated Charlotte Bobcats Arena on Saturday night. The victory sent the Tar Heels to the Final Four next week in San Antonio.

"I've never played against somebody who plays that hard, and the kid is just absolutely determined to be a great basketball player. And big-time players make big-time plays, and he made two big-time plays at the end of the game."

Of course he did. So, when Louisville mounted a comeback in the second half from 12 down to tie the game at 59, who broke the tie? Hansbrough.

"He's an All-American, and it showed tonight," said Louisville senior forward Juan Palacios. "The thing he did was make difficult shots, and that's what great players do. He took charge of the game when it looked like his team might be in trouble."

I've never played against somebody who plays that hard, and the kid is just absolutely determined to be a great basketball player. And big-time players make big-time plays, and he made two big-time plays at the end of the game.

--Louisville senior forward David Padgett

Who stretched the lead multiple times with pull-up jumpers, including two end-of shot-clock squared-up shots just inside the 3-point line pushing the lead to seven and then nine points in the final two minutes? Who do you think?

"Tyler Hansbrough made two shots that you prayed they were going to take, and it shows you what an All-American he is to make those shots because they were both challenging -- I was following the flight of the ball; he couldn't even see the basket," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. "First time I've seen him up close, and some pro team is going to be very lucky. I haven't seen a guy play every possession like that in a long time. I've never seen it, actually."

Who scored 20 of the Tar Heels' 39 points in the second half and seven in a row when the game was tied? Don't even ask.

"Tyler is a big-time player obviously, so you've got to find a way to give a player like that the ball to give him the opportunity to make those big-time shots like that," said fellow UNC junior Marcus Ginyard. "It says even more about Tyler, the fact that he's ready and the opportunity presents itself, he's there, and he's got the guts to knock the shot down."

The jumpers he hit Saturday, which helped him pour in 28 points on 12 of 17 shooting, weren't the same kind of shot as the loose-ball rebound, quick midrange jumper he made with 0.8 seconds left to beat Virginia Tech in the ACC semifinals in this same building on March 15.

Did that shot mean more to Hansbrough than the jumpers he hit Saturday night?

Ah, no.

Tyler Hansbrough
Tyler Hansbrough finds himself heading to the Final Four in San Antonio.

"I would say the jumpers tonight, definitely," said Hansbrough.

"That was a shot he had to shoot," said his exhilarated father, Gene Hansbrough, of the baseline jumper to beat Virginia Tech. "How about he beat [Louisville] with jump shots? That's the first time I've seen him beat anyone with a jump shot [in the flow of the offense]. I know he can hit the jump shot. I've seen him work on it all the time. He just squared up and shot it, just like he does a million times in practice. I'm glad he took it. I'm glad it went in."

What did you expect?

"Well, to be honest with you, I kinda felt like they were going in when they left," Gene Hansbrough said. "I was confident."

Of course he was.

Tyler Hansbrough showed more emotion after hitting the game-winning shot against the Hokies by running wildly up the court. Saturday, he was much more reserved in his celebration. He had the ball at the end of the game and, instead of hurling it to the rafters, he just handed it off to someone working the game. When he took his turn to cut a strand off the net, he walked up the ladder, trimmed the net and then politely waved to the crowd. He didn't dance with Danny Green down below, nor did he hoot or holler while running toward the locker room.

"This was just like winning a mini-tournament," Hansbrough said on his way to the locker room after being on the postgame news conference podium. Earlier at the news conference he said, "I feel like we want to accomplish more. Marcus [Ginyard] said something to me as we were walking in here: 'It feels like we did something big, but we can also do something bigger.'"

A year ago, Hansbrough was crushed when the Tar Heels fell short in the Elite Eight to Georgetown. He was determined to get back to this spot and beyond. He didn't want to become the hardest-working player, the national player of the year, the one everyone fawns over with good reason -- who never made the Final Four.

"I know it means a lot to get there and a great honor," said Gene Hansbrough. "He's worked so hard to get there. But he wants to win the championship. That has been his dream ever since he was a little kid."

Of course. What else would you expect from Tyler Hansbrough?

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.