ST. LOUIS — If Kendall Marshall cant return to the lineup by Sunday, theres no logical way North Carolina will get to New Orleans for the Final Four.
That much became painfully obvious for the Tar Heels after about 10 minutes Friday against Ohio in the NCAA Midwest semifinals at the Edward Jones Dome.
With Marshall sidelined by a broken bone in his right (non-shooting) hand, the top-seeded Heels were outplayed, rattled and in a competitive fog for most of the night before somehow escaping with a 73-65 overtime win.
In Marshalls absence, freshman Stilman White managed to come up with a gutty, but hesitant, performance and even helped ice the win with a couple of free throws (his only points) with 23.9 seconds left. As irony would have it, Whites free throws ended the games scoring.
But in Sundays regional championship, the performance UNC (32-5) delivered against Ohio (29-8) simply will not fly.
Tyler Zellers 20 points and 22 rebounds, plus double-doubles by John Henson (14 points, 10 rebounds) and Reggie Bullock (17 points, 10 rebounds) looked good enough on paper, but not particularly great on the playing court.
Even with a staggering 63-30 rebounding advantage and 24 free-throw opportunities (14 conversions), the Heels nearly were eliminated before regulation ended.
The game was tied at 63 when Ohio sharpshooter Walter Offutt (26 points) missed a free throw with 25.3 seconds left in regulation. UNCs Harrison Barnes then committed one of his five and his teams 24 turnovers on the final possession before overtime.
This feels terrible, Offutt said. We were one free throw away.
Favored by 11 points, the Heels seemingly had the game under control until ball-handling problems flipped the first-half momentum.
With 9:48 left in the half, North Carolina was up 22-8 and killing the far smaller Bobcats inside and on the boards.
But by intermission, the lead was down to 29-22 and the UNC turnover total up to 13.
Even though they had been mauled on the boards 30-17 and were shooting only 23 percent, the Mid-American Conference champs had to be more confident of their situation thanks to the Tar Heels mistakes.
Barnes, at the break, was 1-for-7 en route to 3-for-16 for the game, Henson 2-for-5 and White 0-for-2.
As for Barnes, Ohio coach John Groce said the defensive plan wasnt complicated.
We just tried to battle him and compete, Groce said. We were fortunate tonight with the effort that we gave on the defensive end and we just tried to make it hard on him and force him into tough twos. And I thought we did a good job of that the majority of the night.
UNCs White didnt commit a turnover all game and finished with six assists. But his lack of experience, confidence and court presence resulted in an offensive attack with little direction or fluidity.
UNC coach Roy Williams was frequently furious at the sloppy ball-handling and seemed to be dealing with vertigo attacks during the second half.
Throughout the week, Williams and his players talked about the need for everyone to elevate their game to make up for the loss of Marshall.
No one really could. Zeller played his heart out, but still missed three free throws and committed six turnovers. Bullock hit some big shots and had five assists.
But everyone struggled and would have struggled even more if Ohio had the size to get inside.
For the game, the Ohio Bobcats went to the line eight times. The only miss was the one by Offutt that might have won the game in regulation.
The Tar Heels cannot count on such good fortune on Sunday.