Hansbrough still burns over last year's Mason loss

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- So there was Tyler Hansbrough, the mouth guard that protects his broken tooth hanging out, screaming from the bench at his teammates to switch on defense.

Hansbrough still was intense, still was carrying on about the outcome of the game -- with 41 seconds left and North Carolina up by 10 on USC.

"I told him after the game that his will power, whether he's scoring or not, is evident with this team," North Carolina assistant Joe Holladay said. "He doesn't care if he scores or not. If he sits on the bench, then that's fine with him. He's all about winning."

For two years now, Hansbrough has been one of the hardest-working players in the game. He plays every possession, every rotation of the ball, as if it were his last. And he's not just playing for himself and his team, but also for his hometown of Poplar Bluff, Mo.

"I came here to a top program like this to experience things like that, and for me personally, coming from a small town, I know it would mean a lot to everybody in my town to see someone from a small place do big things," said Hansbrough ahead of Sunday's East Regional final against Georgetown at the Meadowlands.

"For me personally, it would be a great accomplishment for all the work that I've done in the past."

It wasn't supposed to be this hard, though.

Hansbrough committed to the Tar Heels, according to Holladay, with the understanding that Marvin Williams and Sean May would still be on the team when Hansbrough was a freshman. A funny thing happened, though, on the way to matriculation -- the Tar Heels won the national title and the core of that team split.

That meant Hansbrough had to carry the load as a freshman. He had a stellar season, averaging 18.9 points and 7.8 boards as the Tar Heels greatly exceeded the expectations placed on the team. Still, they lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to George Mason.

You can blame the Patriots for the anger that Hansbrough is playing with right now, the drive that he is putting forth to get to the Final Four. Hansbrough hasn't gotten over that loss in Dayton, Ohio.

"People don't understand what we went through last year losing early to George Mason," Hansbrough said. "That lingered with us for a long time."

"I've never seen someone take a loss harder than he did after George Mason," said teammate Wes Miller. "It really hurt him deep down and we've been on a mission ever since then. This has been a big dream of his and thank God we've got a shot to accomplish that."

The Tar Heels have their chance Sunday against the Hoyas, despite Hansbrough only scoring five points in 29 minutes in the Sweet 16 win over the Trojans. Incredibly, he didn't score during the 18-0 UNC run that helped reverse a 16-point deficit.

Hansbrough's production was at his typical high standards in the first two rounds against Eastern Kentucky (21 points and 10 boards) and Michigan State (33 points and nine boards) after he struggled in the ACC tournament (scoring six, nine and 15 points in three games).

"I was really upset with myself during the ACC tournament because of the way I played with that mask," he said. "I was frustrated and concerned about how I could come out. Everyone thought I would play timid because of my nose."

The USC game was his first full game without the mask that was protecting his nose, which he broke in UNC's regular-season finale against Duke. He shed it during the first half of the Michigan State game.

Holladay said Hansbrough was so frustrated with the mask because it wasn't conducive to his game.

"He couldn't see three feet around him," Holladay said.

"He couldn't see," Miller said. "He's usually dealing with three or four bodies and then you add a mask that affects his vision. It was a different Tyler Hansbrough."

Hansbrough says his face feels "great, unless I get hit."

Whether he's scoring or not, Hansbrough's work ethic never changes. He is deemed the hardest worker on the team. He also has more help this season.

The cavalry arrived in the fall and in came Brandan Wright, Deon Thompson and Alex Stepheson to take some of the inside burden off of Hansbrough. While the addition of guards Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington ensured he wouldn't have to score every trip, it also would require Hansbrough to play at a quicker pace.

That meant more conditioning for Hansbrough, and he did everything needed to be ready to play with this crew, to get to this position to help deliver a Final Four berth for the Heels -- and for Poplar Bluff.

If the Tar Heels get to the Final Four, Holladay said, "it would reaffirm everything about Tyler Hansbrough. How does Poplar Bluff win the state of Missouri title two years in row, going against inner city teams from St. Louis and Kansas City? It's because of Tyler Hansbrough. It's a town with 18,000 people. Whoever he plays with wins because he brings out the best in everybody he plays with. Everybody respects Tyler. He never gets on anybody. He is loyal to his teammates."

That's why he was there late Friday night, coaching from the sideline, ensuring his teammates were doing the right thing -- even though the game essentially was over. Hansbrough isn't taking anything for granted. He wants that Final Four berth, a championship banner, and he's not going to stop competing until every last second has expired on his season.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.