Excerpt: 'One Fantastic Ride'

In anticipation of the publication of "One Fantastic Ride" on October 16, UNC Press is pleased to give Inside Carolina readers an exclusive sneak peek into the book.

ONE FANTASTIC RIDE: THE INSIDE STORY OF CAROLINA BASKETBALL'S 2009 CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON by Adam Lucas, Steve Kirschner, and Matt Bowers. Foreword by Roy Williams. Copyright © 2009 by Tobacco Road Media, Inc. Published by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. Available from uncpress.unc.edu or wherever books are sold.

Chapter 16
Business Trip

In many ways, the Peabody Hotel in Memphis had been the perfect team hotel. Its huge lobby had ample room for the band, cheerleaders, and hordes of fans for team send-offs and after-game gatherings. It was within easy walking distance of a wide selection of good restaurants. And it had a wide variety of sizable meeting rooms for team functions.

The Hilton Garden Inn in Detroit had none of those amenities. And Roy Williams thought it was perfect, which was exactly why he picked it.

The NCAA gave participating teams two options for hotels. They could stay in a ritzier property, but they would be housed at least 20 minutes outside downtown Detroit. Or they could sacrifice some creature comforts and opt for downtown hotels. Most coaches chose the more comfortable property, but Williams — even though the Tar Heels traditionally stay in high-quality hotels throughout the season — did not.

For most of the six-night stay, live bands performed loudly or badly — often both — for most of the afternoon and evening hours. The Garden Inn's accommodations were so basic that Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington joked about their room's tiny size. Overhearing the conversation, Williams said, "Hey guys, you want to come see my ‘suite?' " The head coach's room was barely bigger than the bathrooms at some of the hotels where the team had stayed.

But Williams knew the trip was not about finding a five-star hotel. The trip was about winning a national championship, and he believed a downtown hotel did the best job of facilitating that goal. The Tar Heels bused to and from practices and games in Detroit, where they were driven as usual by the squad's quasi-official bus driver, "Super" Dave Harder. But it actually might have been faster to walk the two blocks from the hotel to the arena.

"I chose to stay there because it was the closest [to Ford Field]," Williams said. "I wanted our guys to be involved in the atmosphere of the Final Four and realize they were at the Final Four, but I didn't want any delays in getting to practice. I didn't want any delays in getting to the building. I wanted to be there."

* * *

On the Friday before the national semifinals, Connecticut head coach Jim Calhoun uttered a statement that sent a shiver through the Tar Heel fan base.

"They space the court as well [as] if not better than any team I've seen recently," Calhoun said of Villanova, a team Calhoun's Huskies had faced during the regular season.

That was exactly the type of offensive attack that had periodically caused problems for the Tar Heels. Spreading the floor, locating the mismatch, and beating a defender off the dribble had resulted in high-scoring games for guards from Wake Forest and Florida State.

"We knew they were going to spread the floor on us and they were going to try and drive on us and make plays," Ellington said. "That's the type of team they are."

After all the defensive machinations against Oklahoma, this would be much simpler. It would be basketball at its most basic: one man dribbling, another man trying to stop him.

"If you don't control the basketball when the other team spreads the floor on you, they're going to dribble-penetrate on you all night," Williams said. "You've got to get back in to help or they'll pitch out, or if they get all the way to the basket your big guy has to help and they get easy baskets. It was a big emphasis for us to control the basketball. You are responsible for your man. You know your teammates will be there, but don't depend on it. You guard your man."

The men they would be guarding were very familiar to the Tar Heel backcourt. Lawson had extensive AAU basketball experience playing both with and against several Wildcats, and he exchanged text messages with a handful of Villanova players during Final Four week.

Ellington, a Philadelphia native who spurned the Wildcats during the recruiting process, had played for 'Nova head coach Jay Wright with the U.S. Pan American team in the summer of 2007. That meant he had already been exposed to Wright's frenetic sideline style; Ellington cracked a grin during the national semifinal when he heard Wright rip one of his players at high volume during the game.

"He was definitely saying some things that sounded familiar," Ellington said.

The UNC guards knew they faced a formidable challenge against the guard-heavy Wildcats. Quietly, however, the Tar Heels felt they had a substantial edge in the paint, where Villanova couldn't match their size, athleticism, or depth.

"Our advantage was our size," Deon Thompson said. "Coach has won a lot of games and knows how to win games. He emphasized getting the ball inside either by dribble or by passing the ball. . . . And they were so worried about our inside guys, they forgot we had all our talented shooters on the perimeter."

That the Tar Heels were worried about the opponent and not the environment was a significant change from the 2008 Final Four. In that season, a sense of relief accompanied Carolina to San Antonio. They'd spent the season trying to exorcise the disappointment of a 2007 regional final meltdown against Georgetown. Reaching the 2008 Final Four had felt like a major achievement.

This year, however, reaching the 2009 Final Four simply seemed like a natural progression. Everything was routine, from the pre-event banquet with all four teams to the open practice on Friday in the cavernous Ford Field.

"The previous year helped us a lot," Green said. "We weren't just happy to be there. We weren't shocked or excited by all the people and the lights and how big the dome was. Last year when we went to the Final Four, we lost focus. But this year we came in confident and ready to play. We were a more mature team."

The lasting number from the 2008 trip had been the 40–12 lead built by Kansas midway through the first half. This year, it was almost an exact reversal. With seven minutes left in the first half, the Tar Heels had a 40–23 lead.

Just like the previous year, however, that huge bulge wouldn't hold. Villanova narrowed their deficit to 49–40 at halftime and crept within 50–45 two minutes into the second half. The comeback was fueled by Scottie Reynolds, one of Lawson's childhood friends, who dropped in a couple of jumpers. It was not a matter of Carolina frittering away the lead. It was simply an awakening for a team that had played a starstruck first half.

At the next time-out, Williams assessed the situation with his team.

"Guys, it's not easy to win a national championship," he said. "These guys are good, or they wouldn't be here. They are not going to roll over for you. Don't expect them to miss shots for you. Don't play defense wishing that they would miss. Play defense demanding that they miss because of how you play them."

His team did begin to play demanding defense. They also tossed in an unexpected wrinkle, as foul trouble forced the Tar Heels into a zone for eight second-half possessions. The mix of man-to-man and zone limited the Wildcats to just 26.3% shooting in the second half. For the game, Villanova would shoot just 18.5% from the three-point line.

The UNC offense didn't play its sharpest game of the postseason, but it was helped by an unexpected source: Bobby Frasor's rebounding. The Tar Heel senior had been giddy all week about the prospect of playing in his first career Final Four. He made the trip in 2008 but couldn't play in the game because of a knee injury, and he spent most of Final Four weekend in 2009 with a video camera pressed to his eye, recording every pep rally and celebration for posterity.

His enthusiasm carried over into the game, where he didn't score a point but pulled down a career-high five offensive rebounds. Three of those offensive boards came during a key stretch in the second half, as the Tar Heels increased the lead from five points to an eventual 18-point bulge. It was the perfect snapshot of what differentiates a merely talented team from a championship team. On a championship team, players not only understand what their role is; they also understand what their role isn't. Scoring was a bonus from Frasor, but hustle was a requirement. Fortunately for the Tar Heels, he was perfectly suited to provide it.

"To be in the Final Four was a dream of mine growing up as a kid," Frasor said. "I ran out onto that court with a smile on my face. I was so happy to be there. Then, to be a part of it and get five offensive rebounds and be a key contributor in the win made the feeling even better. They weren't boxing me out. I had a free run to the basket every time. I had a good sense of where the rebound was going to go. To extend a possession, it makes the other team feel like, ‘Now we've got to play defense even longer against these guys.' "

"His effort guarding the ball, sharing the basketball, coming up with big rebounds and big plays was exactly what we needed," Steve Robinson said. "He provided that little spark for us by sheer effort. He never hesitated one time."

Frasor, who also won the team's defensive award for the game, was on the floor at the end as Carolina wrapped up an 83–69 victory. Immediately after the game, one of the Tar Heel assistants proclaimed it the best game he had ever seen from a player who didn't score a point. As he frequently does, Joe Holladay made a circuit around the locker room, saying something individually to each player.

"You broke their hearts," he told Frasor. "Every time they stopped us, you gave us another chance."

In most cases, Williams asks his team to enjoy wins until midnight before turning their focus to the next opponent. This time, the win didn't linger that long. Before the locker room was opened to the media for postgame interviews, the head coach gave his team a frank assessment of their chances in the national championship game against hometown favorite Michigan State.

"Guys, people say we can't beat somebody two times," he said. "You can beat them 20 times in a row if you're better. We beat them up here by 35, and we can beat them again. Those people in the stands aren't going to come down and play. I like this scenario, because people say we can't do it, but we can do it. You're better than they are. Between now and Monday night, get that in your mind. You're better than they are, and Monday night we get to go play."


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