March Madness Memories: Wayne Ellington
Timberwolves.com prepares you for this year’s NCAA tournament by taking a look back at four Wolves’ memorable March Madness runs. In Part 3 of this four-part series, Wayne Ellington uses the motivation of losing in the 2008 Final Four to help North Carolina win the 2009 NCAA title.
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Timberwolves guard Wayne Ellington remembers what it felt like to fall short in the 2008 Final Four. As a sophomore, his North Carolina men’s basketball team lost to Kansas in convincing fashion, 84-66 in San Antonio, leaving a distinct void in the Tar Heels’ season after racking up a 36-3 record and having a legitimate shot at a national title.
But the hurt only fueled UNC’s work ethic that offseason, and it paid off. A year later, at the 2009 Final Four in Detroit, Ellington and his Tar Heels beat Michigan State 89-72 to win the NCAA championship.
“That feeling, when the buzzer sounded and the streamers started falling from the ceiling, it was unbelievable,” Ellington said. “There is nothing like winning a championship. Nothing.”
It was the fifth title in the University of North Carolina’s rich basketball history, and the second under coach Roy Williams. For Ellington, who started alongside future NBA players Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson and Danny Green, it was the culmination of a full year gearing toward a championship run. The loss to Kansas was the beginning of a journey Ellington will never forget.
“We were very fortunate, man. We had a great team,” Ellington said. “We had a group of guys that didn’t care about anything but winning, and it worked out for us.”
The Tar Heels essentially went wire-to-wire as the favorites to win the national championship in 2009, going 34-4 overall and 13-3 in the Atlantic Coast Conference. They began the season 13-0, won the ACC regular season championship outright and bounced back from an ACC tournament loss to Florida State by winning all four games in the South Regional by an average of 25 points.
Ellington, who was named the Most Outstanding Player in the Final Four, was a big part of the team’s success.
“Wayne in college was a special player,” former Duke guard Nolan Smith said. “He’s known for his shooting, but he can also make plays. He was very underrated as a defender in college. He used his size and got into open passing lanes, and with Ty (Lawson) all you had to do was run the floor and Ty was going to find you.”
Ellington attributed a lot of the team’s success to Williams, who he said was not only a coach but a father figure. He said the team learned a lot about basketball and life from Williams, who was adamant about doing things to perfection.
In the end, he said it prepared him for life in the NBA.
“It prepared me a lot, not only physically but mentally,” Ellington said. “What it takes to win, how you have to have that will. Everybody doesn’t know how to win. It’s something you have to learn how to do, and it’s something that stays with you.”
So, too, does the feeling of a national championship. It’s something Ellington takes pride in knowing he contributed to North Carolina’s long tradition of winning.
“It’s an honor,” he said. “There is so much tradition there, and winning is the key at North Carolina. For us to go down as part of history and hang one of those banners, it’s a great feeling.”
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