ST. LOUIS — A season that began with so many hopes and expectations ended amid quiet tears here on Sunday. There will be no Final Four, no national championship for North Carolina, which suffered an 80-67 defeat against Kansas at the Edward Jones Dome in the NCAA tournament Midwest regional final.
For 36 minutes, the Tar Heels (32-6) and Jayhawks (31-6) played a tense, back-and-forth game that seemed destined to be decided in the final seconds. But Kansas changed its defense, confused UNC and closed the game on a decisive 12-0 run that sucked all the drama out of a building that thundered with delirious Kansas fans in the final moments.
The Tar Heels, the top seed in the Midwest, expected to make it this far, and to go farther. They returned all five of their starters from a season ago, and returned a frontcourt of Harrison Barnes, John Henson and Tyler Zeller that was considered the best in the nation. A trip to New Orleans, to the Final Four, almost seemed an afterthought.
Yeah, said Zeller, who finished his final collegiate game with 12 points and six rebounds. We all thought we could get there. It just didnt happen.
Injuries were part of it. Kendall Marshall, the sophomore point guard whose 351 assists set a single-season ACC record, wore a suit and watched his second consecutive game from the bench.
Stilman White, a freshman, finished with seven assists and no turnovers in Marshalls absence, but the Heels offense wasnt the same. Not against Ohio in UNCs sloppy 73-65 overtime victory on Friday night. And not against Kansas on Sunday, when UNC went the final 5 minutes and 45 seconds without making a shot from the field.
I think if I could have been out there, I wouldnt have been effective at all, a red-eyed Marshall said afterward. I cant really catch. I cant really pass right now. So how close was I I probably needed another three or four days.
Marshall was hopeful he would have been able to play in the Final Four, had the Tar Heels made it that far. And for 35 minutes on Sunday, there was still plenty of hope left.
UNC and Kansas entered halftime tied at 47, after the Heels shot 63.6 percent during the first 20 minutes. But Kansas coach Bill Self switched up his defense, going to a triangle-and-two, he said, with about eight or nine minutes to play. The Heels never figured out how to execute against it, or how to find open shots.
I mean, Im still trying to figure it out, said UNC junior John Henson, who finished with 10 points and four rebounds. I dont know. You know, they sagged the big man off and they were kind of playing a zone. Thats why were sitting here right now we never could figure it out.
After Barnes made a free throw with 3 minutes and 58 seconds to play, UNC was behind only by a point, 68-67. But the Tar Heels never scored again, and their final seven possessions went like this: turnover, missed shot, missed shot, missed shot, missed shot, missed shot and missed shot.
Reggie Bullock, the Heels sophomore guard, committed the turnover that started the ghastly stretch, and he had a good view of the 3-pointer that Kansas Elijah Johnson made on the other end to push the Jayhawks lead to four.
I threw the ball away, Bullock said, and they made the shot right in my face.
Bullock spoke quietly to the crowd of reporters surrounding him, while Barnes sat in front of his locker, a blue towel covering his head. He sat there that way for 17 minutes, his head covered, motionless.
What had he been thinking during those 17 minutes, alone with his thoughts under a towel?
Just disbelief, Barnes said.
If Barnes decides in the coming days or weeks to leave UNC early and enter the NBA Draft, as many expect he will, he finished his final collegiate game with 13 points on 5-of-14 shooting. He acknowledged that big-time players come through in big-time games, and said he didnt on Sunday.
The Jayhawks stars, meanwhile, played like it against the Tar Heels. All five of Kansas starters scored in double figures, led by Tyshawn Taylors 22 points, and Thomas Robinsons 18. It was a Taylors assist that led to a Travis Releford dunk with 1 minute and 29 seconds to play, and Kansas celebration started there.
As the final seconds ticked away, UNC coach Roy Williams, who coached at Kansas from 1988 through 2003, made his way across the court to congratulate Self. Back in the Tar Heels locker room, Williams didnt have much to say, Zeller said.
Its tough to say anything, the way it ended, Zeller said.
But Williams had plenty to think about. He wondered what might have been had Marshall been healthy enough to play, had the Tar Heels not lost Dexter Strickland and Leslie McDonald to season-ending knee injuries.
Ill play it over for a long time, Williams said of a season that fell short of its great expectations. Ill say what if for a long time.