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UNC struggles down stretch as Kansas finishes game on 12-0 run

UNC guard Stilman White drives down the baseline.
UNC guard Stilman White drives down the baseline.

ST. LOUIS — Silence covered North Carolina’s locker room like death, but that coldness hit the Tar Heels long before the final seconds slipped away.

Harrison Barnes scored UNC’s last point, a free throw, with 3:58 to play. North Carolina played the final four minutes of its season without ever rustling the nylon.

“They changed their defense to a triangle-and-two,” Barnes said. “It was tough for Z to get the ball. It was tough for me to get the ball near the basket and try and create off of that. We just didn’t make shots as a team.”

That’s what made UNC’s 80-67 loss especially difficult for the Tar Heels to absorb – that and a few things. Kansas and North Carolina played possibly the best first half of basketball for both teams and entered their locker rooms tied at 47.

UNC shot 64 percent in the first half but just 23 in the second.

No team in the history of North Carolina’s basketball program shot the ball worse than this team did in a single half, and it followed a 21-for-33 first-half clinic.

“It was a game of runs, and we didn’t answer the last one,” Williams said.

Barnes’ free throw brought UNC within one point, and had he made both the game would have been tied. Even still, UNC had a chance to grab the lead when senior forward Tyler Zeller blocked Tyshawn Taylor on the ensuing possession and reclaimed the ball.

Instead, the Tar Heels collapsed.

Reggie Bullock had the ball on the left wing and, when looking to hit a cutting teammate, he threw the ball directly into the hands of Taylor. Twenty-seven seconds later, Elijah Johnson capitalized with a 3-pointer to push Kansas’ lead to four.

“We was definitely in the game coming down the stretch, you know, we just made some crazy mistakes,” Bullock said. “I thought to myself I had one of the biggest possessions of my life that I had in my hand, and I just threw the ball away. I made a careless mistake.”

But there was more to the frustration than just those final four minutes.

John Henson sprained his ankle earlier in the game and took a pain shot to help play with his wrist. Kendall Marshall missed the game with a fractured right wrist he injured against Creighton a week before UNC’s game against Kansas. And of course, Dexter Strickland and Leslie McDonald were both out with injuries they suffered long before.

The Tar Heels were banged up, but Johnson’s 3-pointer took UNC off life support.

North Carolina missed its last nine shots while dealing with Kansas’ stifling defense.

The triangle-and-two was so effective that Stilman White took two of UNC’s final five shots after attempting just three the rest of the game.

He was likely UNC’s last option, but he was simply the only one Kansas gave an open look.

“Everywhere you went there was help defense right there and ready,” Barnes said. “I remember the one time I caught it on the left wing, pump faked, Travis Releford goes in the air, I take one dribble and Elijah Johnson or Tyshawn Taylor is right there.”

Kansas scored 12 unanswered points after Barnes’ free throw.

With each point the Jayhawks added, the finality of UNC’s season was clearer and clearer. To lose like that is to see the water’s surface overhead, but never breach it and drown. And for many UNC players, they felt that way, felt like the game was in their grasp for a moment.

There is no solace in that, not for the players on the court, nor for those off of it.

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“It was tough from the side, because there was nothing I could do to help my team,” Marshall said. “You could just kind of see it slipping away as each possession went by.”

Marshall spoke in a soft voice with his head down and noted that White played great in his stead after finishing with seven assists and no turnovers. Williams said White “competed his little rear end off.”

Across the locker room, White was asked if he was proud. His voice quivered while he wrestled back tears.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “We didn’t get to New Orleans, and that was our goal.”

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