College Basketball Nation: Stewart Cooper

ST. LOUIS -- It was an eerily familiar scene Sunday: a moist-eyed Harrison Barnes emerging from a long lament under a locker-room towel; talking about what went wrong, the sudden-ness of losing, the disappointment of falling one game short of the Final Four.

A season ago at Newark's Prudential Center, UNC’s loss in the NCAA regional final felt like it could be a beginning – a learning process for a young team that wasn’t supposed to make it that far.

This time, though, the 80-67 crumble to Kansas at the Edward Jones Dome felt like the end – a goodbye from a squad that expected to go so much farther.

“This year, going into this season, we had a lot of weapons,’’ Barnes said. “We just didn’t have them all at the end. That was the most devastating thing. We didn’t have Kendall [Marshall], we didn’t have Dex [Strickland], we didn’t have Leslie [McDonald]. That’s no excuse. We had an opportunity to win it, we just didn’t.”

Even with McDonald and Strickland (shooting guards relegated to the sidelines since last summer and January, respectively, with knee injuries) sitting in the stands -- and Marshall (the starting point guard who missed his second consecutive game with a fractured wrist) on the bench in street clothes -- the Tar Heels looked as if they could do again what they’ve been doing so often the past two seasons: overcome.

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AP Photo/Jeff Roberson"We had an opportunity to win it," said sophomore Harrison Barnes, here in the locker room after Sunday's loss to Kansas, "we just didn't."
With freshman Stilman White playing fearlessly in his second straight start, UNC pushed back from multiple Jayhawks surges. When Kansas made a 7-0 run in the first half to take a 40-33 lead, UNC countered with an 8-0 rally.

When the Jayhawks opened the second half with another 7-0 run, the Tar Heels came back again, this time 6-0.

That’s why, when Barnes went to the free throw line to try to knot the score with 3:58 left, teammate James Michael McAdoo (15 points) wasn’t worried. “I was like, ‘All right, we’re good,’” the freshman forward said.

Except, they weren’t.

Barnes made one of two free throws to cut the Jayhawks’ lead to 68-67 lead. But then a turnover by Tar Heels sophomore Reggie Bullock turned into a 3-pointer by Kansas’ Elijah Johnson. Barnes, then forward John Henson (who played most of the game on a twisted ankle) missed jumpers. And White – who finished with 13 assists and zero turnovers in his two starts in place of Marshall – fouled Tyshawn Taylor for a 3-point play to give the Jayhawks a 74-67 advantage.

That’s when, as coach Roy Williams said, “we panicked a little bit out there.”

Utilizing a triangle-and-two defense – something the Tar Heels hadn’t faced in a game before this season – Kansas finished the game on a 12-0 run.

UNC, meanwhile, misfired on its final seven shots after the Barnes free throw and finished with its worst field goal percentage in a half in NCAA tournament history (7-31, 22.6 percent). The Tar Heels also recorded their worst 3-point percentage in an NCAA tournament game (2-17, 11.8 percent).

Yes, they missed Marshall, a Cousy Award finalist who had been key to calming, and creating for, his teammates.

But the Tar Heels also missed the rebounding advantage they had prided themselves on all season (Kansas beat them on the boards 41-35). And they missed the accuracy of Barnes, their leading scorer who finished 5-for-14 Sunday and 20-for-61 in four NCAA tournament games.

“I missed a lot of shots I usually make and big-time players come through in big-time games,” the sophomore said. “And it just wasn’t there tonight.”

Now the question is, will it ever be again (at least in a UNC uniform)?

Barnes, Henson, Marshall and McAdoo (who are all considered first round NBA draft choices) shrugged off questions about their futures, saying they weren’t thinking about their next steps during the NCAA tournament. So it’s still unknown who or how many will leave along with scholarship seniors Tyler Zeller and Justin Watts; White (who is leaving for a two-year Mormon mission after this semester); and walk-ons David Dupont, Patrick Crouch and Stewart Cooper.

A year ago, after crying under towels in the locker room, Barnes, Henson and Zeller ultimately returned, saying the goal was to win a national title. There was a sense, even before their official decisions were announced, of what could be.

Sunday, there was more disappointment about what might have been.

“We got to this point last year, and we couldn’t get over the hill,’’ said Henson, who playing with a pain shot and numbing cream on his still-healing left wrist. “And this year, the same way. It hurts. But that’s just how basketball is.”

Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.

Rapid Reaction: UNC 88, Maryland 64

February, 29, 2012

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- A quick look at sixth-ranked North Carolina’s 88-64 victory over Maryland at the Smith Center on Wednesday night:

How it happened: On senior night, it was senior forward Tyler Zeller’s night; the 7-footer scored 30 points, including shooting 20-of-23 from the free throw line, a Smith Center record (and one off the school record) for made freebies.

It wasn’t seamless early, though.

Both teams shot worse than 40 percent in the first half, as Zeller and junior forward John Henson combined for 25 of the Tar Heels’ 36 points en route to a 36-25 lead. Maryland turned it over 11 times before the break, while the Tar Heels committed six turnovers and outrebounded the Terps by only two.

The Tar Heels were sloppy, so much so that coach Roy Williams stripped off his sports coat in frustration after a bad pass with 15:40 left, with his team leading by eight. Terps coach Mark Turgeon showed some angst of his own, picking up a technical foul about four minutes later, when his team trailed by 11. UNC, though, followed that with a 16-0 run, breaking open the game.

And the only real question then was whether Zeller would break his career scoring record. In the end, he came up two points short of tying it. But the ACC player of the year candidate took his curtain call with 6:39 left -- hugging Williams, high-fiving his teammates on the bench and waving to the chanting, standing, appreciative crowd.

Henson added 19 points for the Tar Heels, who shot 39.4 percent.

Nick Faust led the Terps with 17 points.

What it means: The victory kept the Tar Heels tied atop the ACC standings with Duke at 13-2; the rivals will face off Saturday at Cameron Indoor Stadium for the regular-season league title and the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament. Expect a focused showdown. Not only will UNC be trying to avenge its one-point loss earlier this month -- when Devils freshman Austin Rivers buried a game-winning 3-pointer to secure a double-digit comeback -- but both teams are trying to keep their hopes alive for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Maryland now has lost three of its past four games.

Hubbub: It took a while, but North Carolina point guard Kendall Marshall set the single-season school assists record with about 18 minutes left on a pass to Harrison Barnes. Entering the game, he needed four to pass Ed Cota (who had 284 in 1999-2000), and Marshall finished with eight. He now needs only 15 more to pass former Georgia Tech guard Craig Neal for the ACC record; he tossed 303 in 1987-88.

Hubbub, too: As expected, senior walk-ons Stewart Cooper, David Dupont and Patrick Crouch joined senior reserve Justin Watts and regular senior starter Zeller in the opening lineup for the quintet’s final game at the Smith Center. The score was tied at 2 when the normal starters joined Zeller at the 17:55 mark.

What’s next: The Tar Heels will face the Blue Devils at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Saturday. Maryland hosts Virginia on Sunday.
North Carolina coach Roy Williams said he apologized Monday to the five players left on the court for the final 14.2 seconds of his team’s 33-point loss at Florida State on Saturday.

The coach said on his radio show that he was not aware that he had left the quintet of reserves and walk-ons on the Tucker Center floor Saturday -- while he and most of the rest of the team left early to avoid the floor-rushing crowd -- until he watched the tape of the loss.

“I said, 'Guys, I apologize. There was a miscommunication between [assistant] coach [Joe] Holladay and myself. I would never have left you out there to play the game.’” he said. “What I wanted to do -- needless to say, we’re not going to erase a 33-point lead with 14 seconds left -- [so] I was trying to get my entire team off the court, apologize to Florida State, make sure they weren’t interpreting it the wrong way; I was just doing it for safety.”

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Phil Sears/US PresswireFlorida State fans rushed the court after their upset win over the North Carolina Tar Heels.
Williams, whose team dropped to No. 8 in the polls after the most lopsided loss since he became head coach at UNC in 2003, said time was winding down on the blowout when he started to become concerned about the raucous crowd. At the end of UNC’s loss to UNLV in Las Vegas earlier this season, a female manager got pushed to the ground by rushing fans, and he didn’t want anything similar to happen.

“If you watch the tape, Joe Holladay and [director of media relations Steve Kirschner] and I are talking and Coach said, ‘We’re going to have problems getting off of this court. Because they’re already in the aisles, we’re going to have problems.’ … And I think -- and I say think -- [official] Jamie Luckie was in front of our bench. And I’m whispering and talking into his ear, and saying, ‘Jamie, we’re going to have problems getting off this court, do you have any suggestions?’ He says ‘I don’t know what to tell you.’

“And then all of a sudden there’s a loose ball, and a dead ball timeout, and I start walking and motioning to [FSU coach] Leonard Hamilton, and Leonard comes up there, and I say, ‘Leonard, I’m worried about getting our guys off the court; would it offend you we were to leave?’ And he said, ‘No, I think that’s what you should do.’ Which I thought was great … he’s always sensible on things like that. And I said, ‘Leonard, I appreciate it. Please understand this is not intended to be an indictment on your security. … He said, ‘No, go ahead.’

“So I turned to Joe Holladay, and I motioned and said, ‘Come on’. And I took about three steps -- and you can see it on TV… Leonard says something, he says, ‘Roy, your players.’ And I turned around and said, ‘Come on.’ You can see me motion my arm again. And I take off, but I stop and I try to congratulate as many players as I can. … I said to every player, ‘Congratulations on the win.’ I said to the assistant coaches, ‘Please don’t be offended by this.’ And everybody said, ‘Coach, we understand.’"

Assistant coach C.B. McGrath, strength and conditioning coach Jonas Sahratian and two managers stayed on the sideline to help the remaining players get off the court when the game ended. Williams said he waited outside his locker room for all of the players, and when it took a while for Holladay and on walk-on Patrick Crouch to arrive, Williams asked Holladay what took Crouch so long. “And he said, ‘He got caught up in the crowd,’ and I didn’t know what the crap he was talking about.”

Williams, angry at the game’s outcome, said he didn’t talk to his team about the game immediately afterwards, or during Sunday’s clinic with the Special Olympics. It was only after watching tape of the game, he said, that he realized freshman scholarship players Stilman White and Jackson Simmons, as well as walk-ons Crouch, Stewart Cooper and David Dupont played the final 14.2 seconds, with no head coach or teammates on the bench to support them.

“I am watching the tape of the game, and it’s the first time the I realized the Blue Steel guys stayed out there on the court,’’ Williams said. “Every prospect, every walk-on I have ever had -- if I eat steak, you’re going to eat steak; whatever happens to every scholarship player, you have to do. I would never leave five kids out there. If I was going to do that, why wouldn’t I stay out there? I saw it happen one time on TV, and I thought, ‘Why would they leave those kids out there?’”

Williams, during his show, also expressed his anger towards a local radio talk show that implied Kirschner was spinning the story when he called in to explain the miscommunication that led to the five players remaining on the court.

Later, he reiterated: “There’s no way in Hades I would leave five of my guys out there.”

Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.