There have been some epic heavyweight bouts in the history of college basketball. Alcindor vs. Hayes in 1968 filled the Astrodome in Houston. Sampson vs. Ewing in 1982 introduced college basketball to cable television. Ewing beat Olajuwon for the 1984 national championship.
The latest titanic clash took place Sunday at FedExForum in Memphis with a berth in the 2009 Final Four at stake. Tyler Hansbroughs North Carolina Tar Heels beat Blake Griffins Oklahoma Sooners, 72-60, to punch North Carolina the last ticket to next weeks Final Four in Detroit. (Presuming Griffin is honored with this years Naismith Award, the game was the first meeting between Naismith winners in a regional final since the award was first presented in 1969.) The Tar Heels will take on Villanova next Saturday in one national semifinal, while Connecticut squares off with Michigan State in the other. North Carolina on its way to a record 18th Final Four is the only returnee from 2008.
As for the Hansbrough-Griffin showdown, it had more depth in pregame analysis than it did once the ball was tipped. Griffin (23 points, 16 rebounds) won the box score, as Hansbrough was limited to eight points and six rebounds, but his Sooners never closed within eight points of the top-seeded Tar Heels after North Carolina raced out to a 13-2 start. That rarest of teams in modern college basketball, North Carolina starts five upper classmen and, according to Oklahoma coach Jeff Capel, brings pros off the bench.
Tar Heel coach Roy Williams used a troika of big men to guard Griffin after Hansbrough picked up two early fouls. Deon Thompson and a pair of freshmen Ed Davis and Tyler Zeller relied on teammates for double-teaming clamps that limited Griffin to 12 field-goal attempts (he made nine). Unlike in its victory Friday night over Syracuse, though, Oklahoma got little scoring support from the outside, missing 19 of 21 three-point attempts. (After making six treys against the Orange, Sooner guard Tony Crocker missed all five of his attempts from beyond the arc Sunday.)
We held a team that averages 90 points to 72, said Capel after the game. We just didnt make shots. [North Carolina] is known for being more efficient in the second half [when the Heels shot 62 percent], but it came down to our inability to make shots. I do think we were a little bit tight. Sometimes you can want something so much, and try so hard. We had a couple of wide-open shots, and we just missed. Then in the second half, we just could not get stops.
North Carolina point guard Ty Lawson owner of college basketballs most famous big toe led his team with 19 points in 36 minutes of playing time. He was named MVP of the South Regional. Senior guard Danny Green scored 12 points in the games first 14 minutes and finished with 18. The Heels managed to win by 12 points despite both Hansbrough and Wayne Ellington failing to reach double figures. Which said much about the kind of team Williams has constructed.
Its the way I recruit, its the way we try and run this program, emphasized Williams after the game. We aim to have more than one guy as the star. You have to have good balance inside and outside. Most of our guys know theyre not going to get 30 shots, but they also know they have a great chance to win. Williams, already a Hall of Famer, is on his way to his seventh Final Four (his third at the helm of North Carolina). Williams admitted to spitting in the Mississippi River Sunday morning, a superstition he acts upon whenever playing in St. Louis, New Orleans, or Memphis.
On the subject of his most famous player, Williams wanted to clarify a contribution that may have been overlooked. Tyler Hansbrough took four shots today, he said, but he was a beast defensively in the second half. Blake has got to get extra attention, so thats what we gave him. Hansbrough and Griffin joined Lawson on the all-regional team, along with Green and Syracuses Jonny Flynn.
This has been a hard year, said Williams, noting the rash of injuries that hit his team. There were drills wed run for eight minutes, and Id think about stopping at six, because I hadnt hurt anyone yet. But its always sweet when youre playing on the last weekend of the season.