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April 23, 2009

Sweet dreams

Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington made official on Thursday what most people expected once the confetti began to rain down on them at Ford Field after North Carolina fulfilled its hopes, dreams and expectations by defeating Michigan State for the national championship.

Each of the juniors said he would forego his senior year of collegiate eligibility to enter the National Basketball Association's annual draft in June.

The pair were part of a group that leaves behind a tremendous legacy, even for a program as rich in tradition as Carolina. In three seasons, they never finished worse than first in the ACC regular-season standings; they never went home earlier than the round of eight in the NCAA Tournament; they won two ACC Tournaments, and they ended their career with the national title.

The two put their name into the pot to take a look at leaving for the pros last spring, but decided in the end to return in an effort to raise their stock. Coach Roy Williams and the two players said they believe they did just that after Williams spoke with 13 different NBA teams about the pair.

"The more you play, the better you get and you get confident, too," Williams said. "Their decision now is made with a lot more confidence than if it had been the same decision last year. I've always told every team I've ever had if you have big-time dreams and goals, those professional people like to see you perform on the biggest stage. These two kids performed unbelievably well on the biggest stage."

Now when they look back, each young man said that he is so very pleased he made that decision to return.

"It has been one of the best decisions I've made in my life, to come back here and win the national championship," Ellington said. "It felt great. It's a feeling you can't really explain. It's something we achieved as a team that worked so hard. Nobody can take it away from us. I'm just grateful that I did make that decision."

Said Lawson: "I'm glad I came back. If I had left last year, I would have had a bad taste in my mouth with what happened [in a loss to Kansas in 2008]. This year, we won a championship. Not too many people can say they won a championship at the college level. To experience the moment of winning the championship, with the streamers falling down and everything, it felt so good."

Williams said the two should benefit financially as well.

"I spoke with 13 different NBA teams over the past two weeks," Williams said. "Every indication from those people is that this is a good time for the youngsters to do it.

"There is no question we loved having them. They have been great to me personally. It's been a great experience for me to watch them grown and mature. … This year was easier. Last year was a little more difficult. This year I told both of them: 'You're ready to go. You just have to tell me what you want to do. We'll go after it.'

"You're talking about two of the greatest kids I've ever coached as basketball players and people," Williams said. "I'm going to miss them immensely off the court and definitely on the court. It will be a huge challenge for other people."

Both players said they plan to follow another Carolina tradition and return to school eventually to finish earning their degrees. Each has continued to attend classes and are about to take final exams, Williams said.

"That will put them in a position where it will be easier to come back," Williams said. "I'm extremely proud our kids just don't stop going to class and drop out."

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