CHARLOTTE, N.C. - This time, North Carolina got to celebrate instead of heading to the locker room to wait for next year. Tyler Hansbrough and his top-seeded Tar Heels just wouldn't be denied a trip to the Final Four again.
Hansbrough had 28 points and 13 rebounds Saturday night to help the Tar Heels hold off Louisville 83-73 in the East Region final. Playing in front of a partisan home-state crowd, they reached the national semifinals for the first time since winning the championship in 2005.
The Tar Heels (36-2) advanced to play the Kansas-Davidson winner next Saturday at San Antonio.
Ty Lawson added 11 points - including a key 3-pointer with about 5 minutes left - for North Carolina. The Tar Heels blew a 12-point halftime lead, then broke away from a tie at 59 to earn their 17th trip to the Final Four.
It was a reversal of last year's regional final in which the Tar Heels fell apart down the stretch, wasted a double-digit lead in the second half and lost to Georgetown in overtime.
Last year, nobody could hit a shot when the Tar Heels needed one most against the Hoyas in a loss that had stayed with them all season. But this time, Hansbrough and Lawson came through with the three biggest shots of the season to maintain North Carolina's tenuous second-half lead.
Battling against David Padgett in a physical contest inside, Hansbrough finished 12-for-17 from the floor in 38 minutes. Meanwhile, Lawson had nine assists while operating as a one-man press break against the third-seeded Cardinals (27-9) and their full-court pressure all night.
Jerry Smith scored 17 points to lead Louisville, which shot 53 percent and gave the Tar Heels all they could handle in front of a blue-clad crowd. But ultimately, North Carolina proved it had learned the lessons from last year.
First, with the Tar Heels clinging to a 68-64 lead, Lawson came around the baseline and knocked down a 3 from the corner in front of his bench that pushed the margin to seven. Then, after a basket from Earl Clark inside, Hansbrough knocked down a straightaway jumper over the 6-foot-11 Padgett to make it 73-66 with 2:27 to play.
Hansbrough essentially closed the door on Louisville on the next possession. The 6-9 junior got the ball on the left wing with the shot clock winding down, then pump-faked to get Clark up in the air and stepped in for another jumper over Padgett. The ball swished cleanly through while Hansbrough was knocked to the ground, pushing the lead to 75-66 with 1:33 left.
The Tar Heels went 8-for-8 at the foul line to seal it in the final minute.