UNC star to play his final home game

Published 8:08 am Sunday, March 8, 2009

By By AARON BEARD, AP Sports Writer
CHAPEL HILL — Tyler Hansbrough has battled injuries, faced swarming defenses and heard criticism from outsiders that his game hasn’t been what it was last season when he was the national player of the year.
Yet the guy who passed on the NBA for one more year in college isn’t worried about any of that as he prepares for his final home game at North Carolina. Fittingly, it comes against hated Duke with a chance for the second-ranked Tar Heels to win the Atlantic Coast Conference’s regular-season title outright.
So much for the idea that Hansbrough isn’t having the kind of season he came back to school for.
By the numbers, Hansbrough and the Tar Heels (26-3, 12-3) are on par with last year’s Final Four team. For the second straight season, he leads the conference in scoring and his team heads into the season finale against the seventh-ranked Blue Devils (25-5, 11-4) knowing a win clinches the top seed in next week’s league tournament.
But Hansbrough’s job could be tougher considering point guard Ty Lawson didn’t practice Saturday after injuring his left big toe during Friday’s practice. Precautionary X-rays showed no fracture and the team is hopeful he will play, though it’s unclear whether he will be at full speed.
It’s just the latest example of how things haven’t come quite as easily this time around for Hansbrough and the Tar Heels.
Hansbrough — the first returning AP national player of the year since LSU’s Shaquille O’Neal in 1991 — had never missed a game and missed just one practice in his first three years before a preseason shin injury sidelined him for the first two games. Then, in his first game back, he injured an ankle and that sidelined him for another game about a week later.
His scoring is down more than a point while his rebounds are down from 10.2 last season to 8.1, though he is playing about 3 fewer minutes per game. He’s also getting to the foul line — where he recently became the NCAA’s career leader in made free throws — one fewer time a game.
Yet Hansbrough and the Tar Heels, who started a surprising 0-2 in the league, have played through it all with veteran confidence.
The latest challenge is not letting a team that has won five straight games since making a key roster change spoil the final home game for Hansbrough, Danny Green, Bobby Frasor and Michael Copeland.
The Blue Devils have taken a step forward since Krzyzewski inserted freshman guard Elliot Williams into the starting lineup and moved Jon Scheyer to the point shortly after a 101-87 loss to the Tar Heels in Cameron Indoor Stadium. Williams looks fresh after spending much of the season on the bench and has given Duke more energy defensively, which seems to indicate the Blue Devils’ recent trend of late-season fades might be history.
Still, Duke has its own injury questions, particularly up front against Hansbrough, Thompson, and freshmen big men Ed Davis and Tyler Zeller.
Junior forward Lance Thomas sprained his left ankle in Tuesday’s win over Florida State, but practiced Saturday and is listed as probable even though it’s unclear if he’ll be limited. Duke will be without point guard Nolan Smith for a third straight game as he recovers from a concussion suffered at Maryland on Feb. 25.
In a twist, Hansbrough said his favorite game at North Carolina came his freshman year when the Tar Heels beat top-ranked Duke to ruin J.J. Redick’s final home game. Now — with Hansbrough closing in on Redick’s career scoring record — the Blue Devils can return the favor.