The day he walked away from the the University of Kansas to return to his alma mater, Coach Roy Williams became the most hated man in Lawrence, Kan.
In the nine seasons since, North Carolina has won a pair of national championships and Kansas has won one — not a bad result for either squad — but with the second matchup between the two schools since Williams left set for Sunday’s Midwest Region final in St. Louis, it’ll be interesting to see what old wounds and emotions return to the surface.
Williams and the Tar Heels are more focused on a fresh wound. Sophomore point guard Kendall Marshall missed North Carolina’s narrow 73-65 overtime win against Ohio on Friday, and without him, the team’s offense looked out of sorts, committing a season-high 24 turnovers. If Marshall — who broke his wrist last weekend and had surgery Monday — cannot play on Sunday, the Tar Heels go from favorite to sizeable underdogs.
Meantime Kansas had to sweat out its 60-57 win over N.C. State when missed free throws gave the Wolfpack a pair of looks at the game-tying three-pointer.
How will Sunday’s game play out? North Carolina hopes it will be nothing like their last meeting on the tournament stage.
The Tar Heels and Jayhawks met in the 2008 Final Four with Kansas using a massive first-half run to roll to a stunning 84-66 blowout and the title game against Memphis. The Jayhawks won that game in overtime to claim their first national championship since 1988.
The defeat stung North Carolina so badly that its trio of would-be NBA draft picks — Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington — all returned. They cut down the nets the following season in Detroit.
This was thought to be a similar season for the Tar Heels, who saw NBA prospects Harrison Barnes, John Henson and Tyler Zeller forego the draft to return for their sophomore, junior and senior seasons, respectively. But North Carolina struggled at times during the season, leaving fans and analysts alike wondering whether this team could really make a run at the school’s sixth tournament title.
Marshall’s injury status will continue to be a top story for the Tar Heels over the next 24 hours, but seldom-used freshman point guard Stilman White did precisely what he was asked to do on Friday night in Marshall’s stead: he didn’t lose the game for North Carolina. In fact, while the Tar Heels coughed up 24 turnovers, White finished with zero and six assists.
Instead it was Zeller (six turnovers) and Barnes (five) who struggled to create their own offense without Marshall feeding them the ball in scoring situations. For his part, Zeller was tremendous, posting 20 points, 22 rebounds and four blocks — the first 20-20 tournament performance since Tim Duncan in 1997. But Barnes — the team’s most heralded recruit — had a miserable night, making only 3 of 16 shots and failing to get a shot off on North Carolina’s final possession of regulation.
It was sophomore Reggie Bullock who picked up the slack, providing clutch three-pointers including one with less than one minute left in regulation that put the Tar Heels back in front and another early in overtime that gave them the lead for good. Bullock, who missed all of last postseason with a knee injury, finished with 10 rebounds and 17 points (on 5 of 10 three-pointers) — 12 coming after he overheard an Ohio assistant coach say “They can’t win without Kendall Marshall.”
“That just got to me, for someone to say that my team can’t fight, can’t win without our starting point guard,” Bullock said after the game. “That lit a fire under me.”
Williams has to hope Friday’s narrow escape lights a fire under the rest of his squad — especially if Marshall is sidelined once again against Kansas.
After the 2008 Final Four loss, Ol’ Roy drew the ire of Tar Heel fans when he wore a Jayhawks sticker on a black shirt as he watched Kansas rally past Memphis in overtime of the final. At next weekend’s Final Four, the Tar Heels want their coach to be back in his suit and Carolina blue tie, pacing the sideline in New Orleans with his team on the floor.
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