Villanova's NCAA journey comes to an end

DETROIT – Last year, Villanova made it to the Sweet 16, came to Ford Field and lost big to Kansas, which went on to win the national title.

Tonight, in the same venue, the Wildcat’s first Final Four appearance in 24 years ended much the same way. They lost to the preseason No. 1 team in the country, North Carolina, 83-69.

The Wildcats (30-8), who tied the school record for regular-season victories and set the school record for overall wins, fell behind early and never really recovered. It’s one thing to trail American at the Wachovia Center by 14 with 19 minutes to go. It’s another to spot the Tar Heels (33-4) a 17-point advantage after 13 minutes.

Still, the deficit was only nine at halftime. And with 18 minutes to go, it was down to five. But Villanova would miss its next 11 shots, and Carolina went back up by a dozen by the 14/12-minute mark.

The Wildcats would never get it under a dozen the rest of the way.

They’d beaten UCLA (by 20), Duke (by 23) and Pittsburgh at the buzzer to get here. This time, they just ran into a better team.

The Tar Heels will now play Michigan State (31-7) in Monday night’s championship game. The Spartans got there by upsetting Connecticut (31-5) in the opening game, by nine. They’d beaten another Big East team, Louisville, in the regional final by double digits.

North Carolina and MSU met in early December in this building. The Heels won by 30. But two Spartan starters were out at the time.

Carolina, which had lost five of its last six national semifinals, is going for its second title in five years. When the Heels won in 2005, they beat Villanova in the Sweet 16, with the help of a controversial call.

The last time MSU was in the final, in 2000, it took home the nets.

Villanova will say goodbye to four seniors, three of which played major roles: Dante Cunningham, Dwayne Anderson and Shane Clark. Jay Wright will welcome one of the top recruiting classes in the nation next year.

“We were like a boxer that didn’t have anything left,” said Jay Wright. “ (North Carolina) didn’t, either. But they had the lead.”

It meant everything. Tyler Hansbrough went to the UNC bench with his fourth foul with 8:09 showing. The Tar Heels led by 14. By the time he returned, at 3:47, it was still a 12-point game.

The Wildcats took 17 more shots, but had only one more field goal to show for it. They had 22 offensive rebounds, but couldn’t convert enough of those second chances into points.

Carolina missed 15 of its 37 free throws, including 10 in the second half. Didn’t matter. The Heels made 11 of 22 from the arc. The Cats went 5-for-27.

Four UNC players scored in double digits, led by Ty Lawson’s 22. He also had 8 assists and 7 rebounds. Hansbrough had 18, to go with 11 boards. Wayne Ellington, who did most of his damage early, finished with 20, plus 9 boards and 4 assists. It’s pretty much what they do. They haven’t won by less than double digits throughout this tournament.

The Wildcats also put four players in doubles. Scottie Reynolds, who will be back, had 17 points on 6-for-18 shooting. He added five assists and just one turnover in 34 minutes. Dante Cunningham had 12 and 12. Corey Fisher, who’s only a sophomore, had 13 points and 7 boards in 25 minutes off the bench. But he shot 5-for-19. Dwayne Anderson, playing his last game, had 11 boards but shot 2-for-12. He and Cunningham fouled out in the late going.

“It’s hard to put it into perspective right now, because it hurts,” said Anderson. “But we know we’ve accomplished a lot, as a team and as a group of seniors. And 20 years from now, when we get together, we’ll have some great memories to talk about. I think people will remember us.”