ST. LOUIS – North Carolina survived (barely) and advanced (on its knees), but the end is near.
Without the intervention of a faith healer, there won't be a Final Four for the injury-decimated Tar Heels in 2012. They got a good look at life without Kendall Marshall, and it's not a pretty sight. Barring a recovery that allows Marshall to play effectively Sunday against Kansas, Carolina is toast in this tournament.
You know it. I know it. And the Tar Heels know it, too.
"We've got to get some joy in Mudville," coach Roy Williams said. "Because our locker room wasn't as happy as we would like for it to be with being here in the final eight. We realize we escaped and we are wounded a little bit right now, but we've got to start getting some joy in the locker room. "
It's hard to be overjoyed when you've had your eye on the national title all season and suddenly it seems like a physical impossibility. No use dreaming of a matchup with Syracuse or Kentucky if you're life-and-death to beat Ohio.
The Bobcats have an industrial-sized tub of guts, but they are clearly limited, especially in the frontcourt. Carolina got the only available Sweet 16 matchup it could have won, and even then it was dicey.
The Heels had to go to extraordinary lengths to hold off a No. 13 seed whose leading scorer, D.J. Cooper, went 3-of-20 from the field. It took a ridiculous rebound margin (+33, the most in an NCAA tournament game in UNC school history), a missed Ohio free throw for the lead with 25 seconds left and a just-wide 40-footer at the buzzer from Cooper to get this game into overtime. The Tar Heels pulled away from there for a 73-65 victory, but this game was one long warning signal.
[ Related: Ohio's near miracle buzzer-beater ]
"I think we feel like we got away with one," said Tar Heels center Tyler Zeller, whose 20 points and 22 rebounds were the first 20-20 game in the NCAA tourney since Tim Duncan did it in 1997. "Ohio played the better game. They hit a lot of shots. I think we just were able to make a lot of plays at the end that made us capable of pulling it out."
Without Marshall running the show, Carolina threw the ball everywhere but into the Mississippi River. It committed a season-high 24 turnovers, including six by Zeller and five by Harrison Barnes. That's why Williams compared Carolina's loss of its point guard to the Indianapolis Colts losing Peyton Manning and plummeting from the playoffs to the first pick in the NFL draft.
Marshall is the Manning of North Carolina basketball. Irreplaceable.
The irony was that Marshall's previously anonymous backup, Stilman White, acquitted himself well in the first major action of his college career. A bench jockey averaging 0.7 points and 0.4 assists per game finished with six dimes and zero turnovers.
"He was really something," Williams said. "… He really did some nice things."
But defending was not one of those things. White was taken to the basket for three-point play opportunities twice in the second half, once by Cooper and once by Walter Offutt. The second of those blow-bys was with 25 seconds left and gave Offutt the chance to give Ohio a one-point lead. He missed the free throw, and Carolina was free to play for the last shot of regulation.
[ Related: UNC's future lottery pick struggles ]
Barnes blew that play, too, losing the ball as he was going up for the shot. That gave Cooper a chance at a running 40-footer at the gun that hit the rim and glanced off, the biggest near-miss in the NCAA tourney since Gordon Hayward's heave nearly beat Duke for the 2010 national title.
"Sometimes you feel like a preacher," Williams said of his huddle after regulation and before OT. "Because I was just begging and pleading and pushing and trying to get them to understand, 'Now this is five minutes; let's play better, let's feel better about the way we played.' "
Carolina did play better in the extra five minutes. And Ohio was tapped out.
Barnes was catastrophically bad for huge stretches of this game. But he had two brief bursts late in the game to help the Heels stave off elimination. He scored four points with just more than three minutes left – a free throw and then a 3-pointer off an offensive rebound – to tie the game at 57. Then he scored five consecutive points in overtime to close out the Bobcats.
[ Photos: North Carolina vs. Ohio in the Sweet 16 ]
He certainly can play better Sunday. But Zeller cannot, and neither can White, and probably not Reggie Bullock, either – he hit five 3-pointers, including a couple of absolutely crucial ones late in the game. And they'll be facing Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor on Sunday, not the Bobcats.
Hence the subdued Carolina locker room.
"We usually jump around, and I jump around, and we have a little mosh pit," Williams said of the standard post-victory celebration. "In the locker room, I was afraid I would pass out. I told them, 'We can't do that, guys. Come on up here. Let's just hug a little bit.' But we're in the Elite Eight and we have got to make sure that our kids feel good about it."
The Tar Heels can feel good about having another game to play. But unless something changes drastically and Marshall can play – and play well – an injury-scuttled season will end Sunday.
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