“I told [Virginia Tech head coach] Seth [Greenberg] after the game – and I really meant it – that I thought they really outplayed us,” head coach Roy Williams said. “We were very fortunate and made a couple of plays at the end.”
It was a fitting end for North Carolina, truth be told. After struggling for more than 39 minutes on the offensive end of the floor, Ty Lawson drove down the right side of the lane in the closing seconds and hoisted up a shot that hit hard off the rim, leaving the 20,035 fans in attendance to prepare for the 2008 ACC Tournament’s first overtime game.
But Hansbrough had set a pick for Wayne Ellington (15 points) on the perimeter, and followed Lawson’s move to the goal.
“I remember Ty going into the lane area, and I knew he was going to put the ball up,” said Hansbrough, who scroed 26 points on 9-of-18 shooting and grabbed 9 rebounds. “I just ran over to where Ty was going to shoot, and luckily, the ball had a good roll out to me. I just caught it and let it fly. I’m pretty glad it went in.”
“Pretty glad” would not be the best adjective used to describe the The Sporting News’ National Player of the Year’s celebration dance/run that lasted from the baseline to midcourt. Lawson probably described it best, saying that the sight was “awkward.”
But awkward works well when you’re continuing one of the best individual seasons that Tar Heels fans have ever seen, not to mention that the shot propelled No. 1 North Carolina into the ACC Tournament finals for the second consecutive season.
The game-winner overshadowed the fact that Virginia Tech controlled this semifinal contest from the opening tip. North Carolina’s 68 points were its second-fewest on the season (66 at Ohio State), and the Hokies shut down the Tar Heels’ transition game. When UNC had opportunities for easy buckets, lay-ups and putbacks, they were missed from close range.
The result was a 40 percent shooting night on 24-of-60 field goals, with Deon Thompson and Ty Lawson struggling to combine for five points on 1-of-12 shooting and five turnovers.
“We felt like they were being the aggressor on both ends of the court, and so we really didn’t get the penetration that we wanted,” Marcus Ginyard said. “We weren’t necessarily taking all of the best shots that we felt we could have been taking.”
Virginia Tech built 8-point leads in both halves behind the play of A.D. Vassallo (17 points), Deron Washington (14 points) and Malcolm Delaney (15 points, six assists). But the Tar Heels clamped down on the Hokies, holding Greenberg’s squad to 39.7 shooting (23-of-58) for the afternoon.
The game turned with 3:14 remaining, as Ellington finally warmed up and drained a 3-pointer to knot the contest at 59 for the first time since the 38-38 halftime score. He was fouled on the ensuing Tar Heels possession but was unable to give his team the lead on his free throw attempts due a technical foul called on him for talking smack to Washington.
But Ellington would add another 3-pointer and connected on two free throws to give UNC a 66-64 lead, and North Carolina got a crucial defensive stop after Vassallo connected on two free throws to tie the score at 66, setting up the final sequence.
Williams was asked in his postgame interview why he selected the final play with Lawson and Ellington as the first two options, with arguably the best player in the nation on the floor.
“The other guys are pretty good,” Williams said. “If you asked the other team, they’re probably going to make sure they cover Tyler a heck of a lot more. Tyler is one of the options, but he’s not the first option.”
Despite having the style of play dictated to them, the Tar Heels were still able to pull out yet another close victory, giving them an impressive 7-1 record this season in games decided by four points or less or in overtime.
“I think that the biggest thing about today’s win was that we never gave up,” Ginyard said. “We might not have been fighting as hard as we needed to the whole game, but when it came down to it, we gave that extra effort and we continued to fight and we pulled through it together.”
The Tar Heels will host No. 3 seed Clemson at 1 p.m. on Sunday afternoon for the ACC Tournament Championship.