Kendall Marshall clapped softly and barked instructions toward the floor. There wasn’t much else he could do. North Carolina’s season was unraveling at the seams, falling apart against Ohio in the final minutes. And Marshall, the Tar Heels’ sophomore point guard, was in coat and tie, his right wrist wrapped and covered.
Marshall had suffered a broken wrist in North Carolina’s victory over Creighton five days earlier. All week long, the speculation swirled as Marshall’s right wrist became the most analyzed extremity in the tournament. Would he play against No. 13 Ohio on Friday night? Could he brush his teeth? And dadgummit, who was this Stilman White kid, a backup freshman point guard from Hoggard High in Wilmington, N.C.?
The answer to the first two questions, according to North Carolina coach Roy Williams, turned out to be a simple no. The answer to the third was a little more complex. For one night, White and North Carolina were … good enough.
North Carolina escaped the Edward Jones Dome with a 73-65 overtime victory over Ohio, advancing to the Midwest regional final on Sunday. When the Tar Heels returned to their locker room, they skipped their usual mosh-pit celebration. This was relief, not joy, and the Tar Heels huddled for a cathartic group hug instead.
“I thought I was gonna fricken pass out,” Williams said.
White finished with two points and six assists in 32 minutes, serving as a caddy for North Carolina’s hulking front line. Senior center Tyler Zeller finished with 20 points and 22 rebounds as North Carolina erased a 57-53 deficit in the final 3:26. But the opening minutes were about White — and whether he would be up to the challenge.
“I couldn’t be nervous,” White said. “This team is too good. … I can’t come in and be nervous.”
Zeller’s rebound total was a school record in the NCAA Tournament, but that only turned into a footnote after an exhausting second half.
Ohio hit eight of its 13 three-point attempts in the final 20 minutes, turning a 29-22 halftime deficit into a 61-60 lead with 1 minute left. North Carolina sophomore Reggie Bullock answered with a three-pointer. But in a nightmare scenario for North Carolina, Ohio guard Walter Offutt drove baseline on White and finished a tough layup while drawing a foul. The basket pulled Ohio even at 63-63. The free throw bounced off.
“One free-throw away,” Offutt said.
In the final seconds of regulation, Barnes lost control on his way to the basket. But North Carolina owned the overtime period, finishing off Ohio with a 10-2 surge.
After the game, Williams would say he felt overcome by a quick spell of dizziness as the clocked ticked in the second half. His starting point guard was injured. His team was on its way to 24 turnovers. A performance like this on Sunday may mean a loss. But to have that chance, they needed to survive first.
“If I’m gonna die,” Williams said, “Let’s at least die with a win.”
Now the Tar Heels are moving on. In part, because their sheer size was dominant, outrebounding Ohio 63-30. But partly because they got enough decent minutes from White.
It was perfect, of course. Zeller said there were times he felt open, and the ball wouldn’t arrive. The Tar Heels can’t be the same team without Marshall. But they might be able to be good enough.
“Anytime you lose somebody like that,” Zeller said, “It’s going to be a little more difficult.
Williams said Marshall felt better on Friday, but wouldn’t say if he’d be able to play on Sunday. For now, White and the Tar Heels will have to wait.
“We got to get some joy in Mudville,” Williams said.
Some Marshall would help, too.