UNC press today released an excerpt of its upcoming book, One Fantastic Ride, which chronicles North Carolina’s 2008-09 championship season. Here’s some excerpts discussing NC’s Final Four game against Villanova:
"On the Friday before the national semifinals, Connecticuthead coach Jim Calhoun uttered a statement that sent a shiver through the Tar Heel fan base. "They space the court as well [as] if not better than any team I’ve seen recently," Calhoun said of Villanova, a team Calhoun’s Huskies had faced during the regular season.
“We knew they were going to spread the floor on us and they were going to try and drive on us and make plays,” Ellington said. “That’s the type of team they are.” “If you don’t control the basketball when the other team spreads the floor on you, they’re going to dribble-penetrate on you all night,” Williams said
Ellington, a Philadelphia native who spurned the Wildcats during the recruiting process, had played for ’Nova head coach Jay Wright with the U.S. Pan American team in the summer of 2007. That meant he had already been exposed to Wright’s frenetic sideline style; Ellington cracked a grin during the national semifinal when he heard Wright rip one of his players at high volume during the game. “He was definitely saying some things that sounded familiar,” Ellington said.
The UNC guards knew they faced a formidable challenge against the guard-heavy Wildcats. Quietly, however, the Tar Heels felt they had a substantial edge in the paint, where Villanova couldn’t match their size, athleticism, or depth. “Our advantage was our size,” Deon Thompson said. “Coach has won a lot of games and knows how to win games. He emphasized getting the ball inside either by dribble or by passing the ball. . . . And they were so worried about our inside guys, they forgot we had all our talented shooters on the perimeter.”
Just like the previous year, however, that huge bulge wouldn’t hold. Villanova narrowed their deficit to 49–40 at halftime and crept within 50–45 two minutes into the second half. The comeback was fueled by Scottie Reynolds, one of Lawson’s childhood friends, who dropped in a couple of jumpers. It was not a matter of Carolina frittering away the lead. It was simply an awakening for a team that had played a starstruck first half.
At the next time-out, Williams assessed the situation with his team. “Guys, it’s not easy to win a national championship,” he said. “These guys are good, or they wouldn’t be here. They are not going to roll over for you. Don’t expect them to miss shots for you. Don’t play defense wishing that they would miss. Play defense demanding that they miss because of how you play them.”
His team did begin to play demanding defense. They also tossed in an unexpected wrinkle, as foul trouble forced the Tar Heels into a zone for eight second-half possessions. The mix of man-to-man and zone limited the Wildcats to just 26.3% shooting in the second half. For the game, Villanova would shoot just 18.5% from the three-point line.
The Tar Heels increased the lead from five points to an eventual 18-point bulge. It was the perfect snapshot of what differentiates a merely talented team from a championship team. On a championship team, players not only understand what their role is; they also understand what their role isn’t.