Carolina survives against Ohio, but title prospects are not very bright
North Carolina struggled on offense and gave back a big early lead
Tyler Zeller's 20 points and 22 rebounds allowed UNC to escape Ohio's upset bid
Stilman White had six assists and no turnovers in place of Kendall Marshall
ST. LOUIS -- It started out exactly like a game between a No. 1 seed and a No. 13 seed should. Bigger, stronger North Carolina asserted its dominance over smallish Ohio. The Tar Heels jumped to a 26-11 lead. The Bobcats missed 10 of their first 12 shots.
By the time it was over, after North Carolina survived a near-miraculous half-court heave and finally finished things off in overtime, Harrison Barnes sat in front of his locker, not afraid to admit: "We got lucky."
The Tar Heels advanced to the Elite Eight with a 73-65 win, but suddenly their national title hopes couldn't seem dimmer. Every UNC fan's worst nightmare about point guard Kendall Marshall's broken wrist seemingly came to fruition in an ugly, tightly contested slugfest in which Roy Williams' offense looked nothing like it does normally.
"It was not the prettiest effort by any means, but we got to get some joy in Mudville, because our locker room wasn't as happy as we would like for it to be with being here in the Final Eight," Williams said.
Even while outrebounding their overmatched opponent by a staggering 63-30 margin, even in holding the Bobcats to 32.4 percent shooting, the Tar Heels might have been sent packing if not for a missed free throw in the final seconds.
A dysfunctional offense -- encapsulated by 24 turnovers -- will do that.
"It's an ugly win, but sometimes you have to win that way," said center Tyler Zeller, whose personal Herculean performance -- 20 points, 22 rebounds, the latter a school NCAA tournament record -- nearly went to waste. "[Playing] without Kendall is something we have to get better at. We can't have 24 turnovers."
No they can't. Their next opponent -- either Kansas or NC State -- won't be so easy to dominate inside. Their next opponent's star player won't likely shoot 3-for-20 from the field like Ohio's D.J. Cooper did.
And the one man who could make their lives considerably easier -- the nation's assists-to-turnover leader -- was relegated dishing out fist-pumps from the bench Friday night, then issued a voluntary gag order about his condition afterward.
"I'm not answering any questions about myself or my wrist tonight," Marshall said politely, repeatedly, to reporters hovered in front of his locker, his ubiquitous black wrist brace resting on his lap. "I'm so happy for my team right now."
There was no single factor why the underdog Bobcats were able to chip away, and eventually, briefly, wipe away the Tar Heels' lead. Part of it was the turnovers. Part of it was Ohio overcoming a wretched shooting performance in the first half (22.9 percent) to hit a staggering 8 of 13 three-pointers in the second half.
Even then, North Carolina had it chances to put the Bobcats away in regulation.
During one stretch of the second half, Ohio missed six straight shots that would have given it the lead, but the Tar Heels fared no better at the other end. Barnes went through an epic shooting drought, finishing 3 of 16. Zeller wasn't getting the easy looks he did before.
Finally, with 8:30 left, Bobcats guard Nick Kellogg drilled a trey to give his team its first lead, 47-46. From that point forward, Ohio seemed to have the magic and momentum for a potentially historic upset. (No team seeded 12th or lower had ever defeated a No. 1 seed.) A crowd comprised largely of Kansas and NC State fans were firmly on their side. They got up as much as 57-53 with 3:49 left, but big shots by Barnes and Reggie Bullock (17 points on 5-of-10 three-pointers) kept it tight.
With just 25 seconds remaining, Ohio's Walter Offutt drove the lane, hit a game-tying layup and drew the foul by White, stepping to the line for a critical go-ahead free throw. An entire viewing public presumably watched and rooted for it to fall.
"I thought it was going to go in," Offutt said afterward. "Momentum and all that."
It did not.
Still, the Bobcats had one last chance to win in regulation. After Offutt blocked Barnes' potential game-winning jumper just a couple of seconds later, the ball sprang loose. Cooper pounced on it and, from just inside the midcourt line, launched a Gordon Hayward-esque desperation heave.
"I thought it was good when he let it go," said Ohio coach John Groce. "At the end of shootarounds, he always practices half-court shots. If there's anyone you'd want taking a half-court shot, it's [Cooper].
But the shot missed. Barely. And once into overtime, the Bobcats' momentum vanished. Barnes and the Tar Heels pounced, holding Ohio to just two points in the extra period and pulling away fairly easily.
"In overtime, we didn't come out with the same toughness," said a forlorn Offutt, who fouled out after scoring a game-high 26 points. They'd exuded all available energy just to get there.
UNC's players showed no such fatigue in the postgame locker room. For the most part they talked nonchalantly, and positively, about their scare.
"This is the most experience you get can get in one game," said Barnes. "New lineup, so many tough situations, all that pressure -- you can't get much more than that."
He certainly hopes so, because the Tar Heels don't have time to reinvent themselves between now and Sunday afternoon. And barring a miraculous recovery, Marshall doesn't figure to play (and if he does, he won't possibly be at full speed).
If there's a silver lining for North Carolina, it's that Marshall's replacement -- little-used, moppy-haired freshman Stilman White -- was hardly the bane of its problems. Far from it, he was the lone Tar Heel on Friday that did not commit a single turnover. He struggled on defense but did little to slow down the offense.
"He was really something," Williams said of White. "32 minutes, six assists, zero turnovers, and it wasn't a comfortable game. I hope that the slant here is not how lucky North Carolina is, we know that, but give Ohio some credit. But also, we had a guy that has 351 assists that didn't play and all of a sudden we got a freshman point guard from Wilmington, North Carolina who is thrust out there. He really did some nice things."
The problem is, Marshall does more than just nice things -- he's as good as they come at the college level. With him, the Heels are a silky-smooth transition team, their point guard seeing open shooters and entry lanes for his passes often before the recipients do.
"It's tough being on the bench," he said. "I see things I want to do [on the court], but I can't do it."
Marshall, as with all his teammates, was nothing but complimentary about his replacement.
"[White] came in and played his way," said Marshall. "He didn't try to be me."
He couldn't. Few could. A No. 13 seed nearly took down a No. 1 seed here, primarily because North Carolina without Marshall is not a No. 1 seed. It's a collection of highly talented players -- Barnes, Zeller, Bullock and John Henson -- with no one to lead them.
The Heels survived a near-miracle on Cooper's heave. They're going to need one of their own if they hope to win three more tournament games.