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If the first matchup between these two programs back in December (UNC won 98-63) served as a proclamation that North Carolina would be a team to be reckoned with during the 2008-09 campaign, then Monday night's obliteration provided the exclamation point on the season that many observers expected when the Tar Heel quartet decided to return to school last summer.
Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo admitted on Sunday that if both teams played their best, North Carolina would win the national title. Unfortunately for the Spartans, UNC delivered arguably their most potent half of the season in the opening 20 minutes.
All five starters contributed to North Carolina's first 10 points, as the Tar Heels connected on six of their first seven shots in darting out to a 15-5 lead. A quick back-and-forth exchange made it 17-7, and Michigan State would never be able to cut the margin back to single digits.
The Tar Heels blended a powerfully finesse style of offense with a suffocating brand of basketball in building a 36-13 lead less than 11 minutes into the contest.
"We came out strong," said Tyler Hansbrough, who scored 18 points and grabbed seven rebounds. "We wanted to get going from the gates. We knew there was going to be a big crowd there for them. We kind of wanted to take them out of it early."
The Tar Heels converted 52.9 percent of its field goals in the first half – led by Wayne Ellington's 17 points on 7-of-9 shooting – while holding Michigan State to 44.4 percent. But the Spartans' troubles occurred all too often before getting a shot off, committing 14 first-half turnovers and providing UNC with 17 points off those miscues.
Ty Lawson (21 points, six assists, 15-of-18 on free throws) was the primary culprit, posting seven of his Final Four record eight steals before halftime.
"I wanted to slow down Kalin Lucas (seven assists, six turnovers) because he's the heart and soul of their team," Lawson said. "Basically I was trying to knock down passing lanes, make it hard for him, make him do things he didn't want to do. That was my main focus. My shot wasn't falling, too, so I decided to spend more energy on the defensive end and it helped out a lot."
UNC's 55-34 margin at the break set a new NCAA Tournament record for largest halftime lead, as well as the most points scored in the first half. While this display was even more lopsided than the first half last December, the Spartans actually decided to come out of the locker room on this night. Teams don't disappear 20 minutes from a national championship.
Michigan State was finally able to slow the pace after intermission, but by that time North Carolina was more willing to erode the game clock, minimizing possessions and thus Izzo and Co.'s ability to close their deficit. They were able to cut the gap to 76-63 with 4:57 remaining, but for every ounce of hope the Spartans provided to their overwhelming home crowd, the Tar Heels slashed their tires before the momentum ever got rolling, answering every rally their opponents could muster.
In the end, the estimated 50,000-55,000 Michigan State fans in attendance began filing out with more than three minutes left in the 2008-09 season, as the Tar Heels eventually pushed the lead back to 19 in the final minute as their walk-ons were able to scratch their names in the title game's box score.
"You look at that team [and] you have five to six NBA players that can maybe go in the first round to early second round in the draft," Spartan guard and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Travis Walton said. "When you've got a team like that, you're looking at a NBA team, kind of, that can maybe beat the worst team in the NBA probably. They're just a great team."
Izzo expanded on the Tar Heels' immense talent, saying, "When you play a Connecticut, there's some people you can cheat off of, there's something you can do. When you play North Carolina, there's nothing you can do."
Ellington (19 points) earned Most Outstanding Player honors for the Final Four weekend, joining Hansbrough, Lawson, Lucas (14 points) and Spartan center Goran Suton (17 points, 11 rebounds) on the All-Tournament Team. Ed Davis added 11 points and eight rebounds for North Carolina, and Deon Thompson scored all nine of his points in the opening half.
North Carolina shot 45.9 percent (28-of-61) for the game, while holding Michigan State to 40.0 percent on 22-of-55 shooting. As expected, the Spartans won the rebounding battle, 42-35.
The Tar Heels won all six NCAA Tournament games by 12 points or more, and with their fifth national championship, stand firmly in third place all-time behind UCLA's 11 and Kentucky's seven. North Carolina also won titles in 1957, 1982, 1993 and 2005.
For UNC's senior class and particularly Hansbrough, this final chapter seemingly was destined to be written. The Poplar Bluff, Mo. product has deflected NBA chatter throughout his career in Chapel Hill, and now has the hardware to silence his critics.
"Sounds like I made a pretty good decision," Hansbrough said. "Nothing beats this feeling right here."
The nation rallied behind Michigan State this week, understandably – Detroit is the poster child for the country's fallen economy. But on Monday night, North Carolina provided its own form of a stimulus package, delivering a blue heaven to an otherwise cold and dreary city.