Sports

UNC hopes to use Kansas loss as motivational tool

SAN ANTONIO -- A year ago, North Carolina blew a double-figure lead in the NCAA regional final. Saturday, it couldn't overcome a double-figure deficit in the national semis.

Now, the Tar Heels are hoping the two games will have something more in common than tears, embarrassment, shock and disappointment. Like last year's meltdown against the Hoyas, they hope this year's 84-66 domination by Kansas will serve as a catalyst.

"I told everybody after the game, 'Just use this as motivation for next year,''' senior Quentin Thomas said shortly after UNC had its worst shooting and defensive performances of the season. "Just like we used the Georgetown game to get a step beyond, hopefully they use this as motivation to get a step beyond this. We're only one game away ... from playing in the national championship."

So close, yet so far.

This year's team made plenty of strides from the one the lost to the Hoyas last season.

A year more experience made them better in close-game situations; they won eight of nine contests that were decided by five points or fewer. A year more maturity made them more focused; they were 22-0 away from the Smith Center until Saturday. A year more of Tyler Hansbrough, the national consensus player of the year, had them atop the rankings for much of the season.

"You know, the first word that I think of is 'frustrating,''' Hansbrough said after the game. "You get here to the Final Four, you feel like you've been playing good, and then we just didn't out with the energy we needed tonight. Just frustrating."

Especially because they had seemed so seasoned by adversity.

First back-up point guard Bobby Frasor was lost for the year in late December with a torn ACL. Then Alex Stepheson missed two games because his father in California was ill. Sixth man Danny Green went through plenty of ups and downs -- aside from his pre-game Danny Dance -- when his father was released from prison. Then there was the rash of injuries beginning with Ty Lawson's sprained left ankle in February, which sidelined him for six games.

In an interview last month, coach Roy Williams called it a season of extremes -- both good and bad. That seems fitting now, considering the way it ended.

"It's been a year of unbelievable frustrations,'' Williams said in early March, "from Bobby's very sad ACL to Alex's concern about his dad, to Danny's concern about what's going on with his dad, from Ty and his ankle, to Marcus (Ginyard) feeling like he's been run over by a truck all the time. (There also have been) some really satisfying accomplishments on the court, some really satisfying performances -- Tyler, Wayne Ellington getting so much better, ... Quentin being able to step in and do the things he's done.

"Every year is filled with a lot of different things, because it's a long season. But the degree, the extremes and the personal problems we've had to face, it's made it a very difficult year ... I feel like every time I turned around, it feels like everyone's been hitting me between the eyes a little bit."

And that was even before Saturday, when his former Jayhawks team hit his Tar Heels between the eyes by building a 40-12 lead. UNC chipped to within four, but never provided the defensive stamina to overcome its final adversity of the season.

"We've done a lot of good things this season, and you can't take any of that away from us -- the regular-season (ACC) title, the (ACC) tournament championship, the Final Four, the most wins in school history,'' Ginyard said. "But being in the NCAA tournament, and being so close to our biggest goal and dream and not getting it ... that's just the biggest disappointment at this point."

But could it also, like last year, serve as the biggest motivation?

The Tar Heels lose only one scholarship senior in Thomas, who finished his career as the winningest player in program history.

They will also add something to the mix that they didn't last summer: three new recruits. Two five-star power forwards --6-foot-11 Tyler Zeller and 6-8 Ed Davis -- will join four-star point guard Larry Drew.

The question is whether Hansbrough, a junior, and sophomores Lawson and Ellington will be inspired enough by the loss to stay in the lineup.

Asked Saturday if he had any desire to return and try again to win a national title next season, Hansbrough said: "Who doesn't? That's every college basketball player's dream, to win a national championship."

But he, like Ellington and Lawson, said they planned to talk to Williams and their families in the coming days before making any NBA decisions.

But like last year, when they had to make similar choices, they all seem to know what's at stake.

After all, they got one step closer to it.

"Tyler, me, Wayne, if everybody came back, we would be a tough team -- we would probably be No. 1, we'd all probably get better,'' Lawson said.

And one thing's for sure, he added: "We won't forget what happened tonight, and we'll definitely be motivated."

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