Essential Ellington

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – When No. 1 North Carolina begins its NCAA Tournament run on Friday night, the nation's eyes will be fixated on Tyler Hansbrough. But don't be fooled – the Tar Heels' Final Four fate rests in the smooth shooting hands of Wayne Ellington.

There is no discounting what Hansbrough brings to the boys in Carolina blue – 23 points, 10.4 rebounds and furious effort on a nightly basis. But The Sporting News' National Player of the Year cannot carry the Tar Heels to San Antonio on his own.

For every Batman, there needs to be a Robin. For Hansbrough, that's Ellington.

During the Philadelphia product's career in Chapel Hill, the Tar Heels have posted a 63-9 record. In the 63 wins, Ellington is averaging 14.4 points per game with a 47.6 field goal percentage (42.6 percent on 3-pointers). However, in those nine losses, the sophomore guard is averaging 11.1 points with a 31.3 field goal percentage (23.7 percent on 3-pointers).

The most devastating of those defeats was the well-documented Georgetown collapse in the NCAA Tournament's Elite Eight last March – Ellington managed just five points on 2-of-11 shooting, including missing a potential game-winner in the final seconds of regulation.

It's telling that Ellington's best performance out of the losses took place in last season's 89-87 loss at Maryland. He scored 17 points on 6-of-14 shooting (3-of-7 from long range), but a more in-depth look at that contest is intriguing. The 6-foot-4, 200-pounder scored 10 quick points to help the Tar Heels jump out to a 20-7 lead, but then Ellington missed seven of his final nine shots as the Terrapins rallied for the victory.

During this season's 89-78 loss to Duke on Feb. 6 in the Smith Center, North Carolina's perimeter players failed to give Hansbrough (28 points, 18 rebounds) a helping hand. Ellington only contributed eight points on 3-of-14 shooting.

In the postgame press conference, Roy Williams took aim at his outside shooters, with most in the room assuming the head coach was directing the comment at Ellington.

"Sometimes we had good shots," Williams said then. "And if you're going to have good shots and you're going to be a good shooter, then you've got to shoot the ball on game day. Doesn't do you any good to shoot the ball during the week or anything, you've got to shoot the ball well on game day or you're not as good a shooter as everybody says you are."

But Williams indicated during Monday's press conference that the statement was aimed at his collective group of players, and not specifically at his starting shooting guard.

"The reason I know it wasn't directed at him was because he had made a big one at Clemson, he's made some big ones before and I knew he was going to make some big ones later," Williams said. "But Jerry Green used to be my assistant, and he always said, ‘[In] big-time games, big-time players have got to play big.' And that's truly the way I believe, too… Most of the time in big games, your big-time players have to play."

Regardless of the intent, Ellington got the message. Since that Duke loss, North Carolina has won 11 straight games, and he is a big reason why, averaging 18.4 points and 5.2 rebounds per game. He's connecting on 50.7 percent (72-of-142) of his field goals, including a stellar 49.2 percent (29-of-59) from 3-point territory.

"Earlier in the season, I think I was doing some pretty good scoring, and then I kind of lost my rhythm and got into a little slump," Ellington said. "But when Ty [Lawson] went down, I knew that I was going to have to step up and contribute and have some big games for our team in order to win games.

"That's what I did. I wanted to come in and be more aggressive and be the aggressor, and I think I've done a pretty good of that."

When Ellington arrived in Chapel Hill last season, Williams thought that the kid with the silky-smooth jumper had the potential to be best scorer that he had ever recruited. Shooting was never an issue – it was the ability to create his own shot and to be able to absorb contact in crowded areas.

"To be a great scorer, you've got to be able to shoot," Williams said. "And if you really want to be a great scorer, you've got to work on the other parts of your game and I think he has done that."

And while his offensive numbers have been remarkable during this stretch run, it's worth noting that his defensive presence has helped the Tar Heels hold their opponents to 41.8 percent during that 11-game winning streak.

"He's done an incredible job of not only living up to the great shooting star that they say he is, but [also] in improving defensively," junior wing Marcus Ginyard said. "I think that it continues to go overlooked – his ability to really defend and what he's done to help this team grow defensively. I think that his all-around steady effort, both offensively and defensively, has done just great things for this team, especially late now in March."

It's a good sign for Tar Heels fans that Ellington is getting even better as the season progresses. In the run to the ACC Tournament Championship this past weekend, the sophomore averaged 19.3 points per game, while connecting on 22 of his 38 field goal attempts (57.9 percent), including 8-of-16 from downtown.

And while Hansbrough hit the last-second game-winner to escape Saturday's semifinal round against Virginia Tech, it was Ellington that scored eight points in the final three minutes to give UNC its first lead of the second half.

The NCAA Tournament starts on Friday for North Carolina, and as Williams mentioned, big-time players need to step up with solid performances. And luckily for the Tar Heels, Ellington appears ready to accept that challenge.


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