Switching gears

UNC's Alex Stepheson gets one of his three blocks, this one coming against Washington State's Kyle Weaver, in the second half.
UNC's Alex Stepheson gets one of his three blocks, this one coming against Washington State's Kyle Weaver, in the second half.

CHARLOTTE -- Before Thursday's NCAA regional semifinal game at Bobcats Arena, North Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams wrote three things on the locker room board:

Tough enough.

Patient enough.

Poised enough.

By proving they were all of those things on defense, the top-seeded Tar Heels beat No. 4 seed Washington State 68-47. And by holding the Cougars to their lowest points total of the season -- and the fewest points a UNC opponent has scored in the NCAA tournament since 1946 -- North Carolina proved it is worthy enough to advance to Saturday's regional final game against either Louisville or Tennessee.

"We continue to talk about this throughout the year, that we're tired of hearing people say that North Carolina can't play defense, and that's going to be our weak link in our efforts to get to the Final Four,'' UNC forward Marcus Ginyard said after his team out-rebounded WSU by 14 and held it to 31.6-percent shooting. "But tonight, I think you've seen that this team has the capability of buckling down and being that great defensive team ... that can make that run."

Indeed, the Cougars (26-9) offered the ultimate test to UNC's defense from the outset: making the Tar Heels (35-2) defend for a full 35 seconds per possession.

WSU, second in the nation in points allowed (56.1 per game), suceessfully tested UNC's stick-to-itiveness early by chewing up the clock via power-walking the ball up the court. The Cougars' methodical strategy had been the hallmark of their 26 victories and first trip to the NCAA round of 16, but for it to keep working -- for them to keep North Carolina from scoring in transition and running away with it -- they had to make shots.

And the Tar Heels made sure they didn't.

Sure, UNC trailed for the first time of this NCAA tournament when WSU center Aron Baynes opened the game with a dunk. The Tar Heels committed eight first-half turnovers by making silly plays during which they were trying to do too much. And All-America forward Tyler Hansbrough, held without a field goal in the first half for only the second time this year, didn't score until he made two free throws with 77 seconds before the halftime break.

But after Baynes cut Washington State's deficit to 15-14 with a dunk with 8:53 left in the first half, North Carolina outscored the Cougars 20-7 before the break. While sixth-man Danny Green made up for Hansbrough's offensive woes by scoring 12 of his 15 points before halftime, he also helped his defense hold Washington State to only two field goals during that roughly nine-minute span.

"They walk it up the court and they get it across the ... line with seven or eight seconds already elapsed,'' said Williams, whose team set a single-season school record with 35 victories. "And they don't necessarily try to hold the ball down, but they try to hold the ball until they get exactly what they want.

"So I said to Marcus and Wayne (Ellington) and Danny, 'You're going to be hit by a screen, you've got to be tough enough and patient enough to get through it. And a guy's going to cut on the baseline, and he's going to stop and cut the other direction, and you've got to be tough enough and patient enough to continue trying to play the defense for 35 seconds.'"

And they were.

UNC led 35-21 at halftime, and WSU never had a chance to make a dent. Not only did Hansbrough start connecting -- he finished with a game-high 18 points, plus nine rebounds -- but the Tar Heels held the Cougars to 29-percent shooting in the second half.

In the end, Washington State's two leading scorers, Derrick Low and Kyle Weaver, were held to a combined 9-for-29 shooting. Baynes and Low led them with 14 points apiece.

Ellington chipped in 13 for North Carolina, who has won three straight NCAA games by 20 points or more for the first time in program history.

"I think defensively, I think we took a big step,'' Hansbrough said.

"We were patient, it got us into our transition game, and we played well."