CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP)—Marcus Ginyard remembers how the North Carolina locker room felt last season, when a second-half collapse sent Georgetown to the Final Four and left the Tar Heels wondering what went so wrong.
The memories have stayed with North Carolina all season as it fought its way to the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed. Now the Tar Heels are back in the round of eight. And just like last year, a tough and physical Big East team—this time Rick Pitino-led Louisville—stands between the Tar Heels and the Final Four.
“We felt like we’ve been trying to get to this point since last year, since we were sitting in the locker room after the Georgetown game,” Ginyard said Friday. “Every single thing from that point was directed to getting where we are right now, so this has been a long time coming for us.”
North Carolina’s chance at NCAA redemption is probably the biggest story line in an East Regional championship already rich with them. Saturday night’s game features two of college basketball’s marquee coaches in Pitino and North Carolina Hall of Famer Roy Williams. The winner will pass Bob Knight and move into a tie with Kentucky’s Adolph Rupp and Louisville’s Denny Crum with six Final Four appearances, fourth most all-time.
It also pits Louisville center David Padgett against Williams, who recruited him at Kansas before leaving to take the North Carolina job in 2003—a decision that prompted Padgett to transfer to Louisville the following year.
In what has become the winningest season in the storied program’s history, the Tar Heels (35-2) are chasing a record 17th Final Four appearance. Still, that 96-84 loss to the Hoyas remains a tough reminder of what can happen if they don’t finish the job.
Leading by 11 in the second half, North Carolina missed 22 of 23 shots over a stunning 15-minute span and watched the game slip away. The Tar Heels thought about it though the offseason, most notably with Wayne Ellington practicing the 3-pointer he missed at the end of regulation over and over.
“I do believe it was motivation for us to work hard in the offseason, but I don’t think that’s what’s driven our club,” Williams said. “The motivation for me is my dream to have the best team we can possibly be.”
North Carolina has done that in the tournament so far, winning its first three NCAA games by at least 20 points for the first time in program history. The Tar Heels opened the tournament in Raleigh, about a half-hour from their Chapel Hill campus, by cracking the 100-point mark in routs of Mount St. Mary’s and Arkansas. That sent them to Charlotte, about two hours from home, where they locked down defensively on Washington State in a 68-47 win Thursday night in front of another blue-clad, home-state crowd.
Their balance has been impressive. When All-American Tyler Hansbrough didn’t manage a field goal in the first half Thursday, reserve Danny Green scored 15 points. For the tournament, point guard Ty Lawson is averaging 17 points while Wayne Ellington is averaging 16 points on the perimeter to complement Hansbrough inside.
“They’re all playing terrific,” Pitino said. “It’s not one player. They’ve got great balance. You could make a case for about five, six or seven of their players, which is one of the reasons they’re playing great.”
The Tar Heels are 24-1 in NCAA games played in North Carolina, including 8-0 here, to give the third-seeded Cardinals (27-8) the unenviable task of having to win a road game to reach San Antonio.
“You always welcome that as a competitor,” Louisville junior Andre McGee said. “You kind of take it as the analogy of being the gladiator in the coliseum. Everybody is hoping you get killed out there. It’s pretty tough.”
Still, Louisville has plenty of confidence after winning 12 of 14 games to return to the regional finals for the first time since its Final Four run in 2005. On Thursday night, the Cardinals held No. 2 seed Tennessee to 34 percent shooting, including a 3-for-15 day for leading scorer Chris Lofton, in a 79-60 victory.
The matchup against the Tar Heels comes a little later than expected. Both teams were in the early-season Las Vegas Invitational, though BYU beat Louisville with Padgett sidelined because of a broken right kneecap suffered in the second game. Padgett returned Jan. 1, and the Cardinals started their late-season run about a month later.
Now they get the chance to send the Tar Heels home with another painful loss.
“Yeah, the Georgetown loss is still on our mind,” Hansbrough said. “But each year we try to do different things and want to go a little farther than the ‘Elite Eight.”’