DETROIT As he went down the bench, alternately pumping a fist and hugging his teammates with a minute left Monday night, you could see it all in North Carolina forward Tyler Hansbrough's expression:
The elation. The relief. The redemption.
No matter the outcome of Monday's game, Hansbrough -- one of the most decorated players in school history -- would have left UNC a winner. But by helping shellac Michigan State 89-72 at Ford Field, he finished his career with the ultimate emotion: the pride of being a national champion.
"Sounds like I made a pretty good decision," Hansbrough, freshly cut net around his neck, said of forgoing the NBA last summer and returning for his senior season. "Nothing beats this feeling right here."
Hansbrough contributed to UNC's fifth NCAA title in typically tough fashion: 18 points, seven rebounds. Yet it was point guard Ty Lawson who pushed the Tar Heels with 21 points and a title-game record eight steals; freshman forward Ed Davis who pulled them with a team-leading eight rebounds; and junior Wayne Ellington who was voted the most outstanding player of the Final Four after making seven of his 12 shots.
That seemed a fitting way to win it, because that's how Carolina (34-4) grew stronger the latter part of the season -- with Hansbrough still starring but also allowing others to emerge.
Hansbrough and company took the boisterous green-clad crowd out of the game early, first when he won the opening jump ball on a redo, then by contributing five points during a 36-13 game-opening run. It served as a flashback of last April's national semifinal loss to Kansas but in reverse: Instead of the Tar Heels being on the tense end of a 40-12 dismantling, it was the Spartans who were feeling the pain of it all.
After the first 20 minutes, UNC led 55-34 -- the most points scored in a half of an NCAA championship game and the biggest halftime lead in a title game. Hansbrough had 11 points, but Lawson dominated with seven steals -- tying the NCAA record -- while Ellington swished 17 points and Davis grabbed five rebounds.
And it didn't stop there.
MSU (31-7), which lost to UNC by 35 points here in December, just couldn't keep up with UNC's transition game or points in the paint.
Coach Tom Izzo -- whose Spartans had the hopes of an economically depressed city behind them -- had predicted that if both teams played well, the Tar Heels would prevail. But although Goran Suton, who didn't play the last time the teams met, had 17 points and 11 rebounds, UNC played great.
With about 13 minutes left, Spartans reserve Durrell Summers scored on a layup to close the once-24-point gulf to 62-46. But UNC small forward Danny Green -- as he has done all season -- buried a clutch 3- pointer to calm any run attempt. With about 10 minutes left, MSU closed to 15 down, but Hansbrough scored on an inside move to make it 70-53.
And when Michigan State closed to 78-65, Lawson scored on a drive to put the game out of reach, again.
"Everybody talked about how we were a different Michigan State team, where for eight games we've been pretty good -- but we were not that way today," Izzo said. "... We couldn't stop Ellington outside, or Hansbrough inside, or Lawson getting to the line [where he was 15- for-18]."
Hansbrough, the ACC's all-time leading scorer, insisted this week he didn't necessarily need a national championship to secure his legacy. Not with dozens of school, league and NCAA records secured. Not with the 2008 consensus national player of the year trophies stuffed in a closet and four years' worth of All-American honors under his belt. Not with his No. 50 jersey already scheduled to be retired in the Smith Center rafters.
But ever since he was a kid practicing power moves on an 8-foot backyard basket, he dreamed about an NCAA title. So the chance to lead UNC to its fifth one is what drove him to put off the NBA for one last year, to deal with the escalating taunts and criticism from opposing fans and national media, to recover from an early-season shin injury, to get bruised and bloodied and booed for one more season.
And to ultimately heave the NCAA championship trophy.
In addition to winning it all, Hansbrough, Bobby Frasor, Green and Mike Copeland leave Carolina with a 124-22 record, making them the winningest class in Carolina's history -- surpassing Quentin Thomas' 123-victory mark set last season.
Roy Williams also became only the 13th coach to guide his team to multiple NCAA titles.
"The first one in 2005 was sweet,'' Williams said, "but this one is even sweeter."
Just another reason for Hansbrough to circle the court, hugging everyone in sight, as the final horn of his final college game sounded.
"I'm just a part of something special right here,'' Hansbrough said. "It's the best feeling in the world."
Robbi.firstname.lastname@example.org or 919-829-8944.
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