John Henson proved he was healthy again, grabbing rebounds and blocking shots in his return from a wrist injury that seemed perfectly timed for North Carolina's latest push for the Final Four.
But now point guard Kendall Marshall has his own wrist injury that could prove devastating for the Tar Heels.
Henson had a double-double in his first game back from a sprained left wrist, and North Carolina beat Creighton 87-73 in the NCAA Tournament on Sunday. But Marshall broke a bone in his right wrist when he was fouled on a drive to the basket and knocked to the floor midway through the second half.
Coach Roy Williams confirmed the injury after the game, and said he would talk to Marshall and his parents about his status Sunday night. Marshall still finished with 18 points and 11 assists.
“When you go to the Sweet 16, it’s supposed to be a lot more fun than this,” an emotional Williams said afterward.
Marshall’s injury overshadowed what should have been an exciting win for the Tar Heels, 31-5, the No. 1 seed in the Midwest Regional.
They built a 15-point lead in the first half, then kept control and pushed the margin to 19 after the break on the way to their second straight double-digit victory.
The Tar Heels’ defense was good enough to slow the eighth-seeded Bluejays’ offense and make high-scoring forward Doug McDermott work for his points.
Then there was Henson’s return after missing the past three games with the wrist injury from last week’s Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.
Instead, the Tar Heels are unsure whether they’ll have their most irreplaceable player — the guy who drives Williams’ fast-paced attack with unparalleled court vision and outstanding passing in transition — for the rest of the tournament.
“I just want to be here for my team,” said Marshall, his eyes red with emotion. “It is what it is. We’re not saying that I’m not going to play. We’re not saying that I’m going to play. Bottom line, it’s a fracture, and now I have to deal with it.”
Williams cleared reporters out of the locker room to inform the team of Marshall’s injury, then headed to his postgame news conference. The rest of the players struggled with the news.
“We just don’t know what we’re going to do at this point in time,” sophomore Harrison Barnes said.
Marshall, who is left-handed, was hurt when he was knocked to the floor by Ethan Wragge on a drive with 10:56 left. He made the first free throw, then missed the second before leaving the game. He played about 7 more minutes before leaving for good with 1:54 left. Trainer Chris Hirth then examined Marshall’s right wrist on the bench.
The Tar Heels had already lost top perimeter defender and No. 2 ballhandler Dexter Strickland to a season-ending knee injury in January, leaving only freshman Stilman White to relieve Marshall for spot duty. If Marshall can’t go, the job would likely fall to White and versatile senior Justin Watts.
“It’s a little bit shocking,” White said. “I know for sure I didn’t expect it to be that bad. I know Kendall’s a really tough guy. It’s just a little bit of shock right now. That’s the great thing about coach Williams: He always figures something out.”
The Tar Heels will face surprising Ohio in the round of 16 on Friday in St. Louis. The 13th-seeded Bobcats advanced with a 62-56 victory over South Florida.
As for Henson, he had 13 points, 10 rebounds and four blocked shots in 28 minutes. Much of the time, Henson looked like his old self, knocking down midrange jumpers or using his long frame to snatch rebounds or swat shots.
The game was also a reunion of Creighton’s McDermott and North Carolina’s Barnes, who teamed together to lead Ames High School in Iowa to consecutive state championships and unbeaten seasons. McDermott came in averaging about 23 points and eight rebounds, while Barnes was leading the Tar Heels in scoring at about 17 per game.
McDermott finished with 20 points and nine rebounds on Sunday, while Barnes had 17 points on seven for 19 shooting, including back-to-back three-pointers to turn away Creighton’s final push after the Bluejays had closed within 12 with about 5 1/2 minutes left.