Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Wayne's World, Party Time

After the final seconds had ticked away and North Carolina had cut down the nets in a dominant 89-72 championship victory, it was a player from the Philadelphia area that stood above the rest. Episcopal Academy graduate Wayne Ellington, fresh off a performance that ended Villanova's run, hit a barrage of shots in the first half, helping North Carolina build an insurmountable lead. And when it was all said and done, the kid who ventured down to Tobacco Road as a skinny freshman with nothing more than a sweet jump shot found himself as the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four in Detroit.

And boy did he earn it. In his first season at UNC, Ellington proved he could shoot it with the best of them, but honestly, he showed little more than that. Last season, as a sophomore, he upped his scoring, developed a bit more of a well-rounded game, but seemed to disappear in the big games. That was the knock on him, fading away in the spotlight.

Well, in his junior season, he put all those criticisms to rest. This year, Ellington became much more than a shooter. He became a legitimate slasher, a confident ball-handler, and, yeah, he still shot the lights out of the ball. He used his length to become a better defender, his wit to take better shots. And most important of all, when the season began to wind down, about a month left to go, Ellington took his game to another level. He became not just a reliable scorer, but a lethal one.

Heading into the NCAA tournament, he was playing as well as any shooting guard in the country, and he didn't slow down one bit. In the opener against Radnor, Wayne scored a game-high 25 points, efficiently shooting 11-16 from the floor, 3-5 from three and nabbing 8 rebounds. In the second-round battle with LSU, Ellington again scored with ease, dropping 23 on 9-16 shooting and 3-6 from beyond the arc, and he followed that up with 19 points against Gonzaga. He did have a quiet game against Oklahoma in the regional final, but turns out, Wayne was just saving his best for last.

There is no bigger stage in college sports than the Final Four. None. Naturally, given Ellington's past, it would have been no surprise to see him come up small. After all, before his torrid stretch heading into the tournament, that was his M.O. So all Ellington did was come out and hit 5 three-pointers against the Wildcats, crushing the hopes of Villanova right off the bat, finishing with 20 points, 9 rebounds and 2 assists.

Last night, he simply did it again. From the start, Ellington was scorching hot, hitting virtually everything he put up, helping North Carolina jump out to a 22-7 lead. The Spartans didn't know what hit them. Ellington finished with 19 points on 7-12 from the field, nailing all three of this three-point attempts, and his breakaway dunk in the closing minutes was the capper on a tremendous season for Ellington and the Tar Heels.

When the season began, UNC was the unquestioned favorite to win the whole damn thing. After all, every major piece of last year's Final Four team was back: Ellington, Ty Lawson, Tyler Hansbrough, Danny Green, Marcus Ginyard, Deon Thompson. Plus, Carolina was adding talented freshmen Tyler Zeller, Ed Davis and Larry Drew, not to mention getting the versatile Bobby Frasor back in the fold. There was no reason to believe this team wouldn't get back, and most likely, win the whole thing this time around, using the embarrassing loss to Kansas as motivation.

Things started off swimmingly for UNC. They roared out of the gates, even without Ginyard, who was sidelined due to injury, destroying ranked opponents right from the start. Then, Zeller broke his wrist, and after a brief 3-game comeback, Ginyard was done for the year. The Tar Heels got knocked off by Wake Forest, dropped a few games they were expected to win, and suddenly people began to question just how good this team could be.

At times, North Carolina looked disinterested defensively, and there was a large crop of talented teams to challenge them. Then, Ty Lawson became the best point guard in the country, perhaps the best player this side of Blake Griffin. UNC regained its footing, won the ACC with ease, earned its No. 1 seed in the tournament. But again, with Lawson's toe ailing, people questioned just how far North Carolina could go, and really, no one trusted their defense.

Well, Roy Williams got his guys ready. Of course, the Tar Heels scored points at an alarming clip, but, after a 101-58 rout in the first game of the tournament over Radford, sans Lawson, the floor leader returned and solidified the Heels on defense. His quick hands and tough on-the-ball defense seemed to ignite the rest of the team, and North Carolina suddenly became not just a great scoring team, but a great defensive team too. And that gave no one else even a remote chance at beating them.

North Carolina put on one of the truly epic, dominating tournament performances off all time, winning all six games it took to cut down the nets by at least 12 points, winning by an average of 20 points. Ty Lawson was the best player period in the tournament, averaging more than 20 points, 6.8 assists and 3.2 steals in his five games, including an NCAA Final record 8 steals last night. He turned the ball over just 7 times in 5 games, putting up a ridiculous 4.8-to-1 assist to turnover ratio. I know he's small, but for the life of me, I can't figure out why he won't be a lottery pick. The guy is a flat-out star point guard.

Last night, in the culmination of a very decorated career, Tyler Hansbrough got his championship, scoring 18 points in the process. And really, everyone had a hand in it. Deon Thompson was owning the paint early on, Ed Davis snatched up every rebound near him, Bobby Frasor did all the little things Bobby Frasor always does, Larry Drew and Tyler Zeller had cameos, and Danny Green, Mr. do-it-all and my favorite player on the team, hit two big three pointers.

Coach Williams joined the illustrious ranks, winning his second national title since taking over in Chapel Hill, and I couldn't have been happier for the seniors, Green, Frasor and Hansbrough. Oh, and Marcus Ginyard too. It was really great to see Green and Tyler give Marcus big old hugs when they came to the bench, and even better to see Ginyard climb the ladder and take his piece of the net. Even though he played in just three games his senior year, he was as big of a part of this team climbing the ranks from freshmen to seniors as anyone. Although for him, it's not over yet. He'll be granted a redshirt and be back next season. For Green, Frasor and Hansbrough, most most likely Ellington and Lawson too, this was their last game, and they have come a long way.

The year after UNC won the title with Sean May, Rashad McCants, Raymond Felton, Jawad Williams and all the rest, North Carolina had to start all over again. All those players left, meaning it was rebuilding time. Well, Tyler Hansbrough and Bobby Frasor started for the young Tar Heels, and Danny Green and Marcus Ginyard quickly became the top two subs.

A year later, stud freshmen Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington joined the fold, along with a talented, if slightly overweight, power forward by the name of Deon Thompson. Hansbrough quickly became the best player in the ACC, Frasor accepted his fate and moved to the bench, and Danny Green became one of the best bench players in the country while Ginyard established himself as the best defender on the team.

Lawson and Ellington showed incredible promise, but both went through the natural growing pains. Ellington needed to develop into more than just a shooter, and Lawson, with his blazing speed, needed to learn to harness his talents. As a freshman, Tywan was very turnover-prone and simply tried to do everything too quickly.

That all changed last season, as finally, with Hansbrough in his third season at Chapel Hill, North Carolina looked to be the best team in the land. The Heels made it all the way to the Final Four, but were humiliated by the eventual champions, and there was a chance this crop could be disbanded before the ultimate goal was achieved. Green, Ellington and Lawson decided to test the NBA waters. Luckily for UNC, they eventually decided to come back to school, and the rest is history.

For Green, Frasor and Hansbrough (Ginyard too), they put together the best 4-year record in North Carolina history. And last night, they capped that most impressive run with a championship. Green, for all his efforts, became the winningest player ever to don a North Carolina jersey. And he's the player I was happiest for. The player I'll miss the most.

Honestly, I'll think he'll make a terrific sixth man in the NBA, with his versatility, size and athleticism. He can rebound, defend, shoot, block shots, pretty much give you anything you need.

While I'll be sad to see him and the rest of the NBA-bound group go, it was one hell of a fun a ride.

BallHype: hype it up!


  1. Well, UNC did it again.

    Honestly, I don't really hate them. My hate's reserved for the team that's eight miles down the road. Also, I may have gotten a lil outta hand by saying Kiss The Ring when referring to Izzo, because what Roy Williams has done in six years at UNC is flat-out remarkable. He's a damn good coach. With that being said, they looked every bit as dominant as they were slated to look all season long.

  2. It was Roy's best coaching job of his career, I think. The first time around, he did it with another guy's players. This time, he developed every one of those players, from Tyler to Danny to Wayne to Ty to Deon.

  3. Thank you UNC. You won me my office pool. Now I bask in Philadelphia glory over these fools from Boston

  4. Dang. I never win my office pool. Although, chalk one up for Philly against Boston. First a World Series, then a Lavar victory. We're owning their ass all the sudden.