CHARLOTTE -- North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough wasn't exactly all chuckles and smiles in the locker room after the Tar Heels had smacked down Washington State 68-47 Thursday night in the East Regional semifinals.
Couldn't get the first half off his mind.
With 6-11, 270-pound Aron Baynes throwing his considerable bulk at him, with double team defenses raking at the ball every time he touched it down low, Hansbrough played 18 minutes, didn't have a field goal, scored just two points and looked like anything but the national player of the year.
Baynes, a hulk of a guy who has a big body and knows how to use it, was more than holding his own with Psycho-T.
Hansbrough's a junior and he's never played for a national championship. He's never even been to a Final Four. Who knows if he'll be back next season. The lure of the NBA might be too much, although he might want to stop and think that the NBA has a lot more versions of Aron Baynes.
Getting to the Final Four is close enough to smell now, and he's not going to be satisfied until he's standing in the center jump circle in San Antonio ready to play whoever it might be for the championship.
"We're in the same position we were a year ago," he said, thinking back to that regional final loss to Georgetown, when the Tar Heels blew a double-digit lead and lost in overtime. "We're more focused this year, because of last year. And we're closing a lot better."
Hansbrough wasn't happy with his first half, but despite his shortcomings, the Tar Heels had 14-point lead at the half against one of the nation's best defensive teams because Danny Green came off the bench to score 12 points, and Wayne Ellington, Ty Lawson and Deon Thompson filled in the rest of the gaps.
A year ago, the Tar Heels might have been down 14 if Hansbrough hadn't scored, and that speaks volumes about how good this team might be. Last Saturday, the Cougars held Notre Dame to 41 points for the game. At the half on Thursday, the Tar Heels were within six of that total and Hansbrough didn't have a field goal.
"We're a lot better than last year," Hansbrough said. "Lot better."
He could be correct.
The Tar Heels, with a school-record 35 wins already, have beaten three NCAA tournament opponents by 39, 31 and 21 points. They won the first two with their usual run-and-gun style. They beat Washington State at its own game, with a little running thrown in.
"Ask anybody on this team," Hansbrough said, "and they'd rather run. That's North Carolina basketball. This was a game where we had to be patient."
But not always.
During one stretch in the second half when they pushed the lead to 23 points, the Tar Heels scored eight points in one minute, 18 seconds, with point guard Ty Lawson, whose ankle is obviously healthy again, running it down the Cougars' shorts.
"Our strength has been transition defense," WSU coach Tony Bennett said. "We've been pretty good at getting back and building a wall, but he gets so deep. They just keep coming at you."
Bennett said he was disappointed his team didn't better represent the Pac-10.
"But North Carolina is special," he said.
And the Tar Heels also did what this team supposedly could not -- play defense. While the Cougars missed some open shots, the Tar Heels also contested plenty. Washington State shot 31 percent and missed 14 of their 16 3-pointers. All those shots that fell last weekend against Winthrop and Notre Dame became rebounds, and the Tar Heels won that stat, too, 46-32.
"Everyone said we couldn't play defense," Hansbrough said. "That's something we stressed. I think we stepped up."
He qualified that a bit by saying he didn't exactly do that for the entire game.
"Took me a while to get started," he said. "I got a little frustrated."
He finished with 18 points and nine rebounds, a stat line most guys would be proud of. He hasn't been out of double figures all year. He hadn't had a scoreless first half since the Florida State game more than a month ago. He finished with 22 that night.
On Thursday night, coach Roy Williams took him aside and told him to relax, "don't pressure yourself."
That's not the Hansbrough way. He prefers the pressure.
Hansbrough was asked if he was still thinking about the first half.
"Yeah, I am," he said, those wide eyes trying to bore a hole through whoever was standing in front of him. "That's one of the worst halves of my season. It is still on my mind."
"I'm not satisfied," he said. "When you get satisfied, you get worse."
And he knows this is the wrong time of year to be satisfied.
Gary McCann • 329-4074 | email@example.com