Hansbrough scored 20 points and grabbed nine rebounds in the second half, including 10 straight points when third-seeded Louisville rallied from a 12-point halftime deficit to eventually tie the game at 59.
For a short window of time on Saturday night, there was an overwhelming sense of déjà vu saturating the Charlotte Bobcats Arena, as the ghosts of Georgetown appeared from the depths of the building.
In jumping out to 44-32 lead at the break, top-seeded North Carolina (36-2) sliced through the Cardinals full court press, scoring at ease in transition (58.1 percent), while dominating the boards (18-11). But Louisville (27-9) emerged from halftime much more aggressive on the offensive end, using dribble penetration to open up some perimeter options for Jerry Smith (17 points) and Terrence Williams (14 points).
The Cardinals were also able to limit Wayne Ellington’s (13 points on 5-of-14 shooting) and Danny Green’s (11 points) looks in the second half, setting up a situation reminiscent of East Rutherford, N.J., circa Mar. 25, 2007.
“It was in the back of a lot of our minds,” said Hansbrough, who was named the East Region’s Most Outstanding Player in joining Ty Lawson (11 points, nine assists) and Ellington on the All-Tournament Team. “One thing about tonight there was that point where they went on that run and I think the difference this year is we handled that run better and stayed poise and came back. Got some points and kept fighting back until eventually we had a run.”
Spoken like a true team player, but in truth, Hansbrough kept his teammates afloat. When Louisville knotted the score at 59 with 10:21 remaining, the junior All-American hit two quick baskets and a free throw to push the lead back up to five.
And when Earl Clark (12 points) hit a jumper to inch the Cardinals to within 71-66 with 3:52 left on the clock, Hansbrough delivered the knockout blows in fitting fashion, by connecting on two 12-foot jumpers to extend the Tar Heel lead to 75-66, effectively ending any hopes for a dramatic come-from-behind victory.
“That's what an All American does, makes those shots and he's a heck of a basketball player,” Louisville head 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.”
Hansbrough indicated after the game that he didn’t feel as though he carried his team to its 15th-straight victory.
“Not necessarily – I think there were times when I became more active and my teammates got me the ball,” Hansbrough said after scoring in double-digits for the 38th time this season. “Certain times when things aren't falling outside we try to get the ball inside, and I just happened to demand the ball and got some looks.”
But everyone in Bobcats Arena on Saturday night, as well as the millions watching at home or at the neighborhood pub, knew differently. Hansbrough was lacking a signature NCAA Tournament game in his career, and he secured that achievement with a dominating performance in Charlotte, pushing the Tar Heels’ NCAA Tournament success in their home state to 25-1, including a 9-0 mark in the Queen City.
“I've said that when that young man takes the Carolina blue uniform off and doesn't put it on, I'm going to sit on top of the Smith Center or whatever and sit there for an hour and realize how lucky I am to have coached that youngster,” head coach Roy Williams said.
The Tar Heels were far from perfect against Louisville. Despite shooting 53.4 percent (31-of-58) from the floor, North Carolina allowed the Cardinals to post equivalent statistics – 52.7 percent on 29-of-55 shooting, including connecting on 10 of their first 16 shots in the second half.
But North Carolina held Louisville to just one field goal during a late seven-minute stretch that provided some breathing room, and won the rebounding (33-27) and turnover battles (14-19) in the victory.
And while the postgame celebration was much more enthusiastic than the one that occurred here two weeks ago following the ACC Tournament Championship, there is one more set of nets that the Tar Heels are intent on cutting down.
“Coming to the press conference right now, Tyler said we just won a tournament in a tournament,” Marcus Ginyard said. “So we know that this is not our last step. We're very excited to get to this point but we continue to have that same attitude that, you know, we have more work to do.”