CHARLOTTE, N.C. This time, North Carolina got to celebrate instead of heading to the locker room to wait for next year. Tyler Hansbrough and his top-seeded Tar Heels just wouldn't be denied a trip to the Final Four again.
Hansbrough had 28 points and 13 rebounds Saturday night to help the Tar Heels hold off Louisville 83-73 in the East Regional final. Playing in front of a partisan home-state crowd, they reached the national semifinals for the first time since winning the championship in 2005.
The Tar Heels (36-2) advanced to play the Kansas-Davidson winner next Saturday at San Antonio.
Ty Lawson added 11 points including a key 3-pointer with about 5 minutes left for North Carolina. The Tar Heels blew a 12-point halftime lead, then broke away from a tie at 59 to earn their 17th trip to the Final Four.
It was a reversal of last year's regional final in which the Tar Heels fell apart down the stretch, wasted a double-digit lead in the second half and lost to Georgetown in overtime.
Last year, nobody could hit a shot when the Tar Heels needed one most against the Hoyas in a loss that had stayed with them all season. But this time, Hansbrough and Lawson came through with the three biggest shots of the season to maintain North Carolina's tenuous second-half lead.
"That was in the back of a lot of our minds," Hansbrough said. "The difference this year was that we handled that a lot better and we came down and got some points and just fought back until we had a run."
The Tar Heels have won all four of their games in this tournament by double digits. All four victories came in their home state, too.
Battling against David Padgett in a physical contest inside, Hansbrough finished 12-for-17 from the floor in 38 minutes and was named regional MVP. Meanwhile, Lawson had nine assists while operating as a one-man press break against the third-seeded Cardinals (27-9) and their full-court defense all night.
Jerry Smith scored 17 points to lead Louisville, which shot 53 percent and gave the Tar Heels all they could handle in front of a blue-clad crowd. But ultimately, North Carolina proved it had learned the lessons from last year.
First, with the Tar Heels clinging to a 68-64 lead, Lawson came around the baseline and knocked down a 3 from the corner in front of his bench that pushed the margin to seven. Then, after a basket from Earl Clark inside, Hansbrough knocked down a straightaway jumper over the 6-foot-11 Padgett to make it 73-66 with 2:27 to play.
Hansbrough essentially closed the door on Louisville on the next possession. The 6-9 junior got the ball on the left wing with the shot clock winding down, then pump-faked to get Clark up in the air and swished another jumper over Padgett, pushing the Tar Heels' lead to 75-66 with 1:33 left. The ball swished cleanly through while Hansbrough was knocked to the ground, pushing the lead to 75-66 with 1:33 left.
"You see the guy as a junior and he's getting his jersey retired and you're like, 'Why?"' said Terrence Williams, who had 14 points for Louisville. "Then you play against him and you say, 'That's why.' He'll go through the floor just to get a rebound. He's a great player."
The Tar Heels went 8-for-8 at the foul line to seal it in the final minute.
That steady hand was quite a change from last year's loss to the Hoyas, in which they missed 22-of-23 shots and let an 11-point lead slip away in the 96-84 loss.
"We were ready," Lawson said. "We knew we were not going to let what happened last year happen this year."
The Tar Heels shot 53 percent to become the first team to shoot better than 50 percent against Rick Pitino's Cardinals.
Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams moved past Pitino and Bob Knight and into a tie with Kentucky's Adolph Rupp and Louisville's Denny Crum with six Final Four appearances, which is fourth most all-time.
Wayne Ellington finished with 13 points, while Danny Green added 11 for the Tar Heels.
The game came hours after the Louisville and North Carolina women's teams played in the NCAA round of 16 in New Orleans. In that game, the top-seeded Tar Heels rallied from an 18-point deficit to beat the fourth-seeded Cardinals 78-74.