Crothers: Marshall the driving force for Tar Heels

March 4, 2012 

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UNC's Kendall Marshall celebrates the Tar Heels' 88-70 victory over Duke with assistant coach Steve Robinson on Saturday March 3, 2012 at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, N.C. Marshall lead all scorers with 20 points.

ROBERT WILLETT — ROBERT WILLETT - rwillett@newsobserver.com

Tyler Zeller stared at his shoelaces. Same for Harrison Barnes and John Henson. All of them refused to watch the pregame highlight video blaring on the Cameron Indoor Stadium scoreboard during the introductions before Saturday night’s game. But Kendall Marshall’s head was up and probing, as it always is. Marshall stared up at the video of Austin Rivers’ dagger from three weeks earlier as it played to a thunderous roar.

Marshall had already endured the shot over and over all week. One night he’d actually changed the television channel from an ACC game to a Big Ten game to a Boston Celtics game and the Rivers replay followed him every step. So he watched a movie instead. On Saturday alone, Marshall estimated that he saw the Rivers shot at least 25 times. But having it played on the scoreboard at Cameron, well, that pained him viscerally.

Understand that while Zeller had become the obvious scapegoat for the Duke debacle on Feb. 8, a true point guard like Marshall takes the ultimate responsibility for a meltdown like that onto himself. The best passer in the ACC had thrown his worst pass of the season to help spark the fireworks, so in Marshall’s mind the Rivers shot might as well have been in his face.

We’ll never know exactly what Marshall said when he gathered his teammates around him after the video played. Recalling the moment after the game, he used the words “extremely disrespectful,” but also admitted that was a G-rated paraphrase.

“It kind of gave us an edge to come out and play with a chip on our shoulder,” Marshall said. “I felt like it was a way I could really get my team amped up.”

After nearly a full season of speculation about who is the leader of this mild-mannered Tar Heel team, the answer came in that one primal instant at Cameron. As soon as the game started, UNC scored on its first nine possessions, guided by the point guard known as “Butter” for the way he spreads the ball around. All five UNC starters scored in the first four minutes to build a 14-5 lead and the Tar Heels eventually surged to a 24-point halftime edge capped by a pull-up jumper by Marshall at the intermission buzzer.

In the second half, when Duke inevitably cut the UNC lead to 11 points with four minutes to play, instead of giving the ball to one of UNC’s All-Americans, as he normally would, this time it was Marshall who sank the jumpshot that proved to be the dagger. “I don’t think we were scoring that much at that point in time,” Marshall said. “I think it kind of broke their backs a little bit.”

Marshall finished with a game-high 20 points and 10 assists, but he was more proud that all five Tar Heel starters scored in double-figures. While Butter was spreading it around to his teammates, too often Duke’s go-to play on the offensive end was Austin Rivers creating for himself. It became clear that what Duke lacked most in defeat was not a Zeller or a Barnes, but a Marshall.

“I just think he is a terrific player, poised, confident,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said of Marshall. “(He) understands the levers of power on his team and when to use them. He is the ultimate point guard. He was great tonight, but that wasn’t the only time he has been great this season.”

Zeller is a virtual lock to win ACC Player of the Year, but while Marshall may not be considered his team’s MVP, he is undoubtedly its MUP. Its Most Underappreciated Player.

“Honestly, as long as my teammates are playing well and we’re winning games, I’m perfectly fine with getting no credit,” Marshall says. “The right people appreciate what I do. My coaches appreciate it, my teammates appreciate it and that’s all that matters to me.”

The Tar Heels’ 88-70 win over Duke revealed why Marshall is the player UNC can least afford to play without. While no other Tar Heel logged more than 32 minutes in Cameron Indoor Sauna on Saturday, Marshall played all but 97 seconds, orchestrating the proceedings to an extent that he should have been wearing a tux and waving a baton. Marshall even organized his postgame media talk, setting up a folding chair for himself in one corner of the locker room where he appeared extremely happy to finally be sitting down.

Looking ahead to the postseason, if there’s a concern about Marshall it is the mileage on his odometer. “Early in the second half tonight, I got a little fatigued,” Marshall admitted. “Cotton-mouth kicked in.”

While UNC coach Roy Williams began this season vowing to massage Marshall’s playing time, the sophomore has already logged 1,018 minutes, nearly 100 minutes more than any of his teammates. That’s like three extra games. Since Dexter Strickland, the team’s primary backup at the point, was lost to an ACL tear on Jan. 19, Marshall is averaging 35.5 minutes per game. Everybody knows that when Butter is left out too long, it can melt.

“I do feel those minutes,” Marshall says, “But at this point in the season, it’s not about how fatigued you are, it’s about heart.”

After the game, when all of his teammates and coaches were on their way to the team bus, Marshall lingered in the locker room. He couldn’t be rushed. He was still controlling the tempo, even after the game ended.

When Marshall finally reached the bus, his night wasn’t quite done. In the Twitterverse, the Tar Heels leader has nearly 50,000 followers. At 9:48 as the bus streaked toward Franklin Street to witness the celebration, Marshall tweeted: “ACC Champs.” A few hours later he tweeted: “Adrenaline GONE. Supa tired lol.

Inspired by his leadership, Marshall added 589 new followers that night, not counting his teammates.

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