ST. LOUIS — When North Carolina point guard Kendall Marshall began Friday night’s Midwest Region semifinal on the bench dressed in a tailored suit, it seemed as if Ohio had finally caught the break everyone thought it would need to score a historic upset of the mighty Tar Heels.
But at the end of regulation, D.J. Cooper’s desperation heave from half court hit off the backboard and clanked off the right side of the rim, a near-miss that ultimately allowed No. 1 seed North Carolina to avoid a stunning collapse.
The Tar Heels barely survived No. 13 seed Ohio, 73-65, needing overtime and a record-setting performance by ACC player of the year Tyler Zeller to advance to the NCAA tournament’s Elite Eight for the 26th time in program history.
North Carolina will face No. 2 seed Kansas, a 60-57 winner over No. 11 seed North Carolina State, in Sunday’s region final.
The Tar Heels (32-5) led by 15 in the first half, but the Bobcats (29-8) almost became the lowest-seeded team in tournament history to defeat a No. 1 seed thanks to a barrage of three-pointers and a season-high 24 turnovers by the Tar Heels.
But Zeller finished with 20 points and 22 rebounds and guard Reggie Bullock added 17 points, including a clutch three-pointer with 40 seconds remaining in regulation and North Carolina trailing by one. Bullock also made his fifth three-pointer of the game to start overtime, and the Tar Heels held the Bobcats without a field goal during the extra period.
“We feel like we got away with one,” said Zeller, who became the first player since Wake Forest’s Tim Duncan in 1997 to register at least 20 points and 20 rebounds in an NCAA tournament game.
North Carolina finished with a 63-30 rebounding advantage, which tied for the fifth-largest edge on the boards in NCAA tournament history. Rebounding was the Tar Heels’ one saving grace on a night when they looked discombobulated on offense with Marshall sidelined after breaking his wrist last weekend.
Ohio guard Walter Offutt had the Bobcats on the verge of the lead with 25 seconds left in regulation after he was fouled while making a driving layup. But he hit the front of the rim on his ensuing free throw attempt to leave the score knotted at 63.
“Obviously this feels terrible. One free throw away,” said Offutt, who finished with a game-high 26 points and had six of the Bobcats’ 12 three-pointers. Ohio made just 23 field goals all game.
On North Carolina’s ensuing possession, forward Harrison Barnes was stripped as he drove to the lane, part of a night that saw him score just 10 points and finish 3 for 16 from the field. But Cooper, the Bobcats’ star in early-round upsets of Michigan and South Florida, missed that final shot of regulation and finished the contest with 10 points on 3-for-20 shooting.
The Tar Heels felt the effects of playing without Marshall from the opening tip, struggling to hold on to the ball all night long. But replacement Stilman White wasn’t the issue, finishing with six assists and no turnovers. Barnes and Zeller combined for 11 turnovers.
“It was not the prettiest effort,” North Carolina Coach Roy Williams said. “There’s got to be some joy in Mudville because our locker room wasn’t as happy as it’d like to be [making] the final eight.”
The miscues allowed the Bobcats to work their way back into the game after falling behind early. Ohio shot just 22.9 percent before halftime.
Consecutive three-pointers by Offutt helped ignite a 9-0 run that left the Bobcats down by one, 37-36, with just more than 15 minutes remaining. Ohio went on to take its first lead at the 8:30 mark when guard Nick Kellogg hit a three-pointer. Three minutes later, Cooper put the Bobcats ahead again when he scored five straight points to give them a four-point advantage with less than four minutes to go.
It wasn’t long, though, before the Tar Heels regained the lead for the last time, leaving them on the cusp of a record 19th Final Four appearance and the Bobcats to ponder just how close they were to securing an unlikely victory.
“There’s nothing I can say to them at this point that’s gonna take the sting away from losing that one,” Ohio Coach John Groce said.