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Saturday, April 4, 2009
Updated: April 5, 6:35 PM ET
UNC's talent wins out in ugly affair

By Dana O'Neil
ESPN.com

DETROIT -- They missed 15 free throws, got beat on the boards by five, lost the game in the paint by 10, second-chance points by three and even got beat on the fast break.

And won by 14.

There is no secret here, no statistical nuance to uncover that will explain why North Carolina rolled Villanova 83-69 in the national semifinals on Saturday night.

The Tar Heels won because the Tar Heels are so talented they can overcome their own deficiencies.

Back in November, when everyone was talking about North Carolina finishing undefeated and already penciling in the Heels' reservations for a Detroit hotel, those people weren't crazy. There was a reason for all that hype: a team of returning players that went to the Final Four a year ago, a roster that includes four McDonald's All-Americans and a team that can run like gazelles and score in torrents.

Tyler Hansbrough
Tyler Hansbrough totaled 18 points, 11 rebounds and four steals against the Wildcats.

North Carolina is in the national championship game because it has a gear that no other team in the country has, a sort of internal light bulb that, when it flickers, can steamroll everybody.

That's what people saw in November, and that's what Villanova saw on Saturday night -- and will continue to see in its nightmares for months.

"They're just very, very good,'' Nova head coach Jay Wright said. "That's what we ran into. We ran into a team that's just playing better than us right now, that's just better than us.''

The Heels didn't play well. No one did really. There were 90 missed shots, including 9-of-29 shooting from the floor for Carolina in the second half, 10-of-38 for Villanova.

"This game wasn't pretty or smooth,'' UNC's Tyler Hansbrough said.

No, this won't go down in the keeper file.

Along with their statistical troubles, the Heels also let the game ebb and flow, a sort of build-a-lead/blow-a-lead roller coaster that was never so bad you thought the Heels would blow it … but never quite over, either.

"We showed flashes of greatness,'' UNC guard Wayne Ellington said. "But we didn't maintain it.''

The Heels started the game like a team on a mission -- which is exactly how they've described themselves. Ever since a humbling beatdown at the hands of Kansas in this game a year ago, North Carolina has lived for a chance to earn a little retribution.

It was Kansas 40-12 at one point a year ago.

On Saturday night, it was 40-23 Heels, an offensive onslaught in which North Carolina picked apart Villanova's matchup zone with such ease it was laughable.

Ellington just seemed to be floating on the perimeter, waiting for the Wildcats to choose to double Hansbrough or rush to Lawson so he could drill dagger after dagger. He had 11 points in 10 minutes.

"I know that was on my mind,'' Hansbrough said. "That's why we came out like we did. We found out last year if you come out nervous or tentative in the Final Four against a hungry team, they're going to take it to you.''

And then came the unpredictable downshift, a 17-9 Villanova run that was almost as stunning as the fact that the Wildcats, who hit 2 of 12 3-pointers in the first half, trailed by just nine at the break.

In fact, when Villanova opened the second half with a 5-1 run, capped by a Reggie Redding 3-pointer on a kickout from Scottie Reynolds, the general consensus was game on.

Yet the great separator was that overdrive. It was like the Heels toyed with the Wildcats, a taunting big brother who lets you get close in a foot race only to sprint to the finish line just when you think you have a shot.

"That's what's scary about them, their runs,'' Wright said. "You have to score because when you're missing shots, they're out.''

That's exactly what happened.

After Shane Clark drew an offensive foul off Hansbrough, the Wildcats had the ball, down five. Dante Cunningham got a great look at a jumper and the ball circled the cylinder, dropping halfway down before rimming out.

The miss started an epidemic, a clang-clang-clang made all the worse by the microphoned rims at Ford Field that only exaggerated the frustration Villanova was feeling. In all, the Wildcats would miss their next 10 shots, including five on one possession.

Ty Lawson
Ty Lawson missed seven free throws, but also had a team-high 22 points and eight assists.

In between, the Heels turned their Pinto into a Maserati. Danny Green hit a 3-pointer and Ty Lawson a layup, and just like that -- 54 seconds to be exact -- five points became 10 points.

"That's what's demoralizing for teams,'' UNC senior Bobby Frasor said. "They get it close, get the crowd going, but it's our ability to come right back. We needed a good shot and we got a good shot.''

That's the thing about Carolina: It needs a good shot, it gets a good shot.

It feels threatened, it runs away from the trouble.

The Heels get beat up statistically and they win.

Sitting in the locker room postgame, Green perused the box score and zeroed in on his team's deficiencies.

And then he just shrugged.

"The mistakes we made, they're all very fixable,'' Green said. "It's as simple as boxing out. That's not hard to do. Missed free throws? That's just a matter of concentration. I mean, if these were big problems, I'd be worried. But these aren't big problems.''

No, nothing is big when you have the simplest solution in the game of basketball: the talent to overcome even yourself.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.