Tyler Hansbrough always found a way for North Carolina, whether it was carrying the Tar Heels when they lost their point guard or making a shot despite every defender knowing the ball would end up in his hands.
Now, with his relentless drive and unyielding will, Hansbrough has the Tar Heels back in the Final Four.
Hansbrough had 28 points and 13 rebounds Saturday night to help the Tar Heels hold off Louisville 83-73 in the East Regional 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, setting up a potential matchup between Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams and the Jayhawks program he left behind when he returned to his alma mater in 2003.
On this night, however, the focus was squarely on the Atlantic Coast Conference's player of the year.
Battling in a physical contest inside, Hansbrough finished 12-for-17 from the floor in 38 minutes and was named regional MVP. That included a pair of clutch jumpers over the outstretched arms of 6-11 center David Padgett as the Tar Heels desperately tried to hold their tenuous second-half lead in the final minutes.
"He does the same thing in practice every day," Williams said. "He is the most driven, focused player I've ever seen in my life. He wants to be the best player he can be and win.
"That's Tyler Hansbrough. That's Tyler Hansbrough at practice every day. That's Tyler Hansbrough on off days. That's who Tyler Hansbrough is."
For Hansbrough and his teammates, it was a reversal from last year's second-half collapse against Georgetown in the NCAA tournament's round of eight. This time, the tournament's No. 1 overall seed got to cut down the nets instead of heading to the locker room to wait for next year.
The Tar Heels have won all four of their games in this tournament by double digits. All four victories came in their home state, too, allowing them to celebrate in front of plenty of blue-clad fans Saturday.
"My feelings right now are great," Hansbrough said. "This just kind of takes all those bad experiences away. At the same time, we want to accomplish more."
Ty Lawson added 11 points — including a key 3-pointer with about 5 minutes left — for North Carolina, which blew a 12-point halftime lead, then broke away from a tie at 59 to earn their 17th trip to the Final Four.
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, the Tar Heels played with steady poise when the third-seeded Cardinals (27-9) erased the margin and traded baskets with them in the anxious final minutes.
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 step 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.
"I've been playing with him my whole college career," said junior Danny Green, who had 11 points despite needing four stitches to close a cut above his left eye late in the first half. "A lot of shots that he takes and makes, it still shocks me to this day. I'm like, 'How did he get that off and how did he make it?' He's been doing it his whole career."
The baskets left Louisville's players in similar disbelief.
"You see the guy as a junior and he's getting his jersey retired and you're like, 'Why?"' said Terrence Williams, who had 14 points for Louisville. "Then you play against him and you say, 'That's why.' He'll go through the floor just to get a rebound. He's a great player."
The Tar Heels went 8-for-8 at the foul line to seal it in the final minute. That steady hand was quite a change last year's loss to the Hoyas, in which they missed 22 of 23 shots and let an 11-point lead slip away in the 96-84 overtime loss.
Jerry Smith scored 17 points to lead Louisville, which shot 53 percent and gave the Tar Heels all they could handle after halftime.
"We played exactly the style of play we needed to win," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. "(It's) very difficult sometimes for people to admit when the other team is better. But we're a very good basketball team this year, very good, and they were better tonight."
Lawson — back at full speed after spraining his left ankle in February — had nine assists while operating as a one-man press break against the Cardinals' full-court defense all night.
The Tar Heels shot 53 percent to become the first team to shoot better than 50 percent against the Cardinals. The win allowed Williams to move past Pitino and Bob Knight and into a tie with Kentucky's Adolph Rupp and Louisville's Denny Crum with six Final Four appearances, which is fourth most all-time.
The game came hours after the Louisville and North Carolina women's teams played in the NCAA round of 16 in New Orleans. In that game, the top-seeded Tar Heels rallied from an 18-point deficit to beat the fourth-seeded Cardinals 78-74.