Tudor: What might have been will haunt Tar Heels

staff columnistMarch 26, 2012 

— This time, there was no Ty Lawson miracle for North Carolina’s basketball team, as there was in 2009.

This time, there were only misery, tears and the beginning of a nonstop “what if” offseason.

“I’ll play this one over and over for a long time,” Tar Heel coach Roy Williams said after an 80-67 season-ending loss to Kansas on Sunday in the NCAA Midwest Regional championship game.

Until sophomore playmaker Kendall Marshall suffered a broken bone in his right wrist March 18 against Creighton in Greensboro, the Tar Heels might have been the best college team out there.

But without Marshall, the Heels (32-6) were good but not great. Had it not been for the injury, there’s every reason to think Carolina would have defeated Kansas (31-6), gone to the New Orleans Final Four and possibly met Kentucky in the national title game.

When Marshall was able to participate in a 25-minute workout Saturday, Williams and his team had some hope he might play.

“I thought he was (close to playing) yesterday,” Williams said. “I got really excited at that point. But it got sore last night after that little activity. But during that practice, I thought he might have a chance to go. Then last night, I got less confident. He just didn’t feel right.

“I hate it for that kid. I hate it for our program. Kendall Marshall is all about winning, all about team. He cares about his team more than maybe anybody I’ve seen.”

Freshman Stilman White and senior Justin Watts again ran the offense and White got off to a dramatic start by driving the lane and hitting a short jumper to begin the scoring.

In 28 minutes, White had seven assists and no turnovers. Watts made a big three, finished with five points, two assists and had only one turnover.

But the Tar Heels without Marshall just were not the same team offensively. Although the first half ended tied at 47, Carolina never got really comfortable in its half-court sets or transition offense.

Even with all five Kansas starters finishing in double digits – led by Tyshawn Taylor’s 22 points and Thomas Robinson’s 18 – the Heels almost certainly would have been able to reach the 80-point mark with Marshall.

But sometimes it’s just not meant to be. In a season when wingmen Dexter Strickland and Leslie McDonald suffered serious knee injuries and Henson had to deal first with a wrist injury and then with a sprained ankle Sunday, UNC battled.

The way it ended gutted Williams, who recalled his days as an assistant to Dean Smith.

“Coach Smith, the smartest guy I ever knew, said the biggest worry he had about me was how hard I took the losses as an assistant. He said they’re a heck of a lot tougher as a head coach,” Williams said.

“I’m going to play this game over and over, but I’m going to consider how lucky I am to coach … this year. It’s been a fun group of kids and they came together down the stretch as good maybe as any group I’ve ever coached.”

Dating to Lawson’s toe injury in 2009, the Tar Heels have been trapped in what could be described as an “injury curse.”

It didn’t stop the 2009 team from winning the title because Lawson was able to return in a second-round NCAA game against LSU in Greensboro. That was the day a title run gained traction.

In 2012, another potential title run ended on the same Greensboro Coliseum court when Marshall crashed to the floor in what would eventually be a 14-point win.

“That’s college basketball, I guess. But right now, I really hurt for this team,” Williams said.

That one word – “hurt”– will always serve as the story of Carolina in 2011-12.

What if Kendall Marshall had not gotten hurt?

Tudor: 919-829-8946

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