This was one in which reality crushed reverie, power overwhelmed hopefulness. This was one in which the best college basketball team in the land proved it was the best college basketball team in the land, and the experts knew exactly what they are talking about.
Over the weekend, we had been immersed in the tale of Michigan State, and how its ascent was being felt by this city that once was the proud hub of a flourishing auto industry, but now reflects all the problems of America’s stumbling economy.
It was going to be so glorious, so uplifting when the Spartans came through. But they could not. North Carolina never gave them a chance. The Tar Heels ran and jumped and harassed. And Michigan State was in a state of bewilderment.
In the end, Carolina won 89-72, took its fifth NCAA basketball championship, finished as the Final One of the Final Four, verified that indeed as in October’s preseason polls and now in April’s glory, the Tar Heels are an unquestioned No. 1
They hit quickly and hard, stunning not only Michigan State, but a record crowd of 72,922 at Ford Field, the majority of which naturally was cheering for the Spartans. Carolina was up 22-7 within six minutes gone; then 34-11 with 9:44 to play in the half.
Would the Tar Heels score 100? Maybe they should have. Would they beat State worse than in December, when Carolina, in the very same building, the home of the NFL Detroit Lions, dismantled the Spartans, 98-63? Maybe they could have.
“They’ve kind of given us our lunch, haven’t they?’’ Tom Izzo, the Michigan State coach asked with great prescience the day before the game. “But that’s because they’re a great program.’’
The greatest going this season.
Sunday night, Roy Williams, the Carolina coach, dined on fried lobster at the Detroit Fish Market for the second time in 48 hours. “I’m not superstitious,” Williams said when confronted as he left the restaurant, “but I ate here Friday night and I didn’t want to take any chances.’’
With the team he put on the court, there were no chances to be taken. Carolina forced a supposedly disciplined State team into 21 turnovers. “Fourteen in the first half,’’ said Izzo. “We couldn’t do anything. I was disappointed. I also thought we missed some good shots early. I thought we looked either shell-shocked or worn down.’’
The championship was a reward for Carolina players such as Tyler Hansbrough and Danny Green, who ignored opportunities to join the NBA and came back for a senior season of not so much retribution as relish.
The 6-foot-9 Hansbrough, last season’s Player of the Year, was castigated because he did not lead Carolina to a title. When Williams was asked if that would diminish Tyler’s career, he was adamant in his denial. “Ernie Banks never won a World Series,” Williams reminded.
But now Hansbrough has won an NCAA, and when the final seconds ticked off and the confetti was shot from those special air guns, he was a little kid beside himself, belying a reputation for a lack of emotion.
“This was the best way to go out,” Hansbrough shouted into a CBS television microphone, “after what we had been through. We climbed all the way.” Hansbrough had 18 points, behind Ty Lawson’s 21 and Wayne Ellington’s 19. Center Goran Suton scored 17 in his last game for Michigan State.
“We couldn’t stop Hansbrough inside,” said Izzo, “and we couldn’t stop Lawson from getting to the line.” Lawson got 18 free throws and made 15 as he drove inside and drew foul after foul.
“All I know,” said Williams, who has led Carolina to two championships in his six years after moving there from Kansas, “is I’m the luckiest coach in America. I am so proud of this team. We overcame a lot during the season.”
They also scored a lot. Eight times Carolina reached 100 points or more, and when the Heels led Michigan State 55-34 at intermission, it appeared inevitable they would do it a ninth time. But Carolina got a bit loose and sloppy, and so the rout became merely a one-sided victory.
Magic Johnson, the Michigan State alum, and Larry Bird were in the building on what was the 30th anniversary of their memorable battle in the 1979 NCAA championship, won by the Spartans over Bird and Indiana State. And Michael Jordan, a Heel, David Robinson, Vivien Stringer and John Stockton made an appearance as part of being voted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Quite a night for greatness. And North Carolina was a major part of that, much to the frustration of the state of Michigan and Michigan State.