ST. LOUIS — From his seat on the North Carolina bench, Kendall Marshall watched the Tar Heels struggle without him during their 73-65 victory overtime victory against Ohio on Friday night, and he watched UNCs offense falter against the Bobcats difficult, intrusive defense.
UNC coach Roy Williams didnt think itd be easy without Marshall, who six days ago suffered a broken bone in his right wrist. And it wasnt easy for the top-seeded Heels, who with the victory against No. 13 Ohio advanced to the NCAA tournament Midwest regional finals on Sunday.
Still, after what was perhaps UNCs most grinding, hard-fought victory of the season, Marshall wore a wide smile along with a crisp suit in his teams locker room in the bowels of the Edward Jones Dome.
We still found a way to adjust, which was huge, said Marshall, who declined to discuss whether he might play on Sunday. Im so proud of my team that they found a way to win. Weve fought through extreme circumstances. I dont think any team has been through what weve been through when it comes to player personnel.
And Im just happy to be in the Elite Eight.
The Tar Heels (32-5) nearly didnt make it there. Reggie Bullock, UNCs sophomore guard, made a 3-pointer with 40 seconds left in regulation to put the Heels ahead 63-61. Ohios Watler Offutt, though, tied the game with a layup with 25 seconds to play, and he was fouled on the play.
Offutt missed the free throw, which gave UNC a chance to win on the final play of regulation. But Harrison Barnes, who struggled through a 3-of-16 shooting performance, lost possession on his way to the basket, and the Bobcats (29-8) missed a 3-point attempt from near the midcourt line as the final buzzer sounded, sending the game into overtime.
Bullock, who finished with 17 points, began the overtime in much the same way as he ended regulation. His 3-pointer on UNCs first possession of overtime gave the Heels a 66-63 lead, and they never trailed. The Tar Heels outscored the Bobcats 10-2 in the extra period.
It was the Bobcats defense, though, that flustered and frustrated UNC throughout much of Friday night. With freshman Stilman White and senior Justin Watts sharing point guard duties in place of the injured Marshall, the Tar Heels committed a season-high 24 turnovers.
Ohio, one of the nations best teams at generating steals, had 13 of those against UNC.
They just do a great job of getting into the passing lanes, said Barnes, who finished with 12 points. I mean, I cant necessarily say one specific person but I mean, everybody. Theyre out there, denying. I dont know how many steals they had tonight, but thats probably the most turnovers weve committed as a team.
UNC held a significant size advantage but struggled to work the ball into the interior. When they did, though, the Tar Heels often had success.
Tyler Zeller, the senior forward, led UNC with 20 points and 22 rebounds, and he became the first player since former Wake Forest standout Tim Duncan to have at least 20 points and 20 rebounds in an NCAA tournament game. The Heels outscored Ohio 28-20 in the paint, and 14-4 off of second-chance points.
But the Bobcats, led by 26 points from Offutt took advantage of all of those turnovers they generated, and they outscored UNC 26-11 in points off of turnovers. The final minutes of regulation were tense and hectic, and overall the game was tied six times the same number of times the lead changed.
White, who started his first collegiate game, finished with six assists and didnt commit a turnover.
I was ready for it, he said afterward. I felt calm. I was at peace.
It was a feeling with which his teammates could relate, at least after UNC survived to play another day.