Ram Tough

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Now that we are a couple of days removed from North Carolina's Elite Eight victory, you can go ahead and admit it. When Louisville made its second-half charge, your mind drifted back to, well, you know. But as they proved on Saturday night, these are not those same Tar Heels.

It's a rather odd dynamic, this memory thing. For 12 months, Georgetown served as the perfect motivational tool for a program long on talent, but short on experience. But when the Cardinals erased a 12-point deficit with an attacking offense and a chaotic defense, that burning image of what happened last March in East Rutherford, N.J. vanished from memory.

Maybe not yours, but definitely from the players'.

"No, not at all," Wayne Ellington replied, when asked if the Georgetown collapse entered his mind when Louisville tied the score at 59. "When you're out there playing, you don't have anything to think about except the game. We knew they were going to make a run at us. This was to go to a Final Four. Any team at that point would have made a run at us, so we knew we just had to keep our composure and fight."

Sure, the players are another year older, and that much more experienced. But age and participation doesn't erase the past. Never has, never will. Toughness, on the other hand, is one of those traits that cannot be gauged by looking at the stat sheet.

And this group of Tar Heels is one tough bunch.

North Carolina's 36-2 record will possibly lull the world outside of Chapel Hill into a false sense of how easy Roy Williams' squad has had it this season.

"It was definitely tough," Ty Lawson said. "We had a lot of tough games – Clemson, Duke, Maryland, BYU earlier in the year… And especially through the NCAA Tournament, I think we had the hardest bracket. Louisville is a great team, so I feel like our record doesn't speak to how tough our season was."

Lawson – who was heavily questioned for his toughness during a six-week stretch of dealing with a severely sprained ankle – is the primary reason that North Carolina was forced to excavate that hidden characteristic when talent alone wasn't enough.

Sure, there was evidence before Lawson's injury that the Tar Heels were tougher than a year ago – see the Wayne Ellington 3-point buzzer-beater to defeat a strong Clemson team in overtime in enemy territory – but what happened after the Feb. 3 game in Tallahassee cannot be taught with X's and O's.

There are seemingly countless examples. Down 15 points with less than nine minutes to play in the second Clemson game, Quentin Thomas drove for a game-tying lay-up in regulation to force overtime, and then hit two free throws to force a second overtime before the Tar Heels escaped with a victory to avoid falling three games behind Duke in the ACC race.

At Boston College, North Carolina overcame an 18-point second-half deficit and Tyrese Rice's hot hand (46 points) to pull out a 10-point win, and then there was Danny Green's performance against Duke at Cameron Indoor, as the Tar Heels rallied in the final five minutes to turn a two-point Blue Devil lead into an eight point, regular-season championship-clinching victory.

And in the most telling game of the season – in this reporter's eyes, anyway – North Carolina survived Virginia, 75-74, in Charlottesville. Marcus Ginyard had contemplated using crutches to alleviate the pain of a right ankle sprain and a nagging toe injury on the other foot less than 48 hours before the midseason contest, and thus was a game time decision.

But after Thomas got in early foul trouble, Ginyard was forced to play 35 minutes, every once in a while stealing a moment or two during media timeouts to let down his guard and wince in apparent pain. Not to mention that Deon Thompson gutted through a hyper-extended left knee injury, and that Tyler Hansbrough had missed the previous day's practice with a grotesque-looking ingrown toenail.

"The adversity made our team a lot stronger," Ellington said. "Without Ty being there all of the time to break the press or to be that one-man fast break that he is, it helped us out a lot. It was a blessing in disguise for Quentin to be able to come in and get those kinds of minutes and gain that confidence. That was huge for us."

And during that entire stretch, Tyler Hansbrough was, well, Tyler Hansbrough. Have we not yet reached the point where pairing Tyler's name with some grand accomplishment is nothing more than a lesson in redundancy?

But since we're talking about mental toughness, how about the National Player of the Year's cross-court hustle, rebound and 12-footer as time expired to knock Virginia Tech out of the ACC Tournament and secure the East Region's No. 1 seed?

So when Louisville made its second-half run on Saturday, while you may have been thinking back to the Georgetown game, it's more likely that the players were thinking, ‘Bring it on.'

"We know that this is not our last step," Ginyard said. "We're very excited to get to this point but we continue to have that same attitude that, you know, we have more work to do.

"But this team has continued to show that when we need to dig deeper and play better and play harder and play smarter, we do. And I think that just shows how good this team really is. Every time we get into those sticky situations we always get ourselves out. And that's what you need, you need a team that's going to be tough enough to not give in, and to continue to push forward."

In an ironic twist that only the Final Four can bring, it may be Roy Williams' emotional toughness that could be the only question when the Tar Heels take the floor against Kansas on Saturday night in San Antonio.

"I have no idea what my emotions are going to be," Williams said.

Just follow your players' lead, Coach.


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