North Carolina Tar Heels: 2012 St. Louis Regional

ST. LOUIS -- North Carolina sophomore Reggie Bullock was playing defense near Ohio’s bench, with somewhere around 12 minutes left in regulation, when he overheard a Bobcats assistant coach say it: “They can’t win without Kendall Marshall.”

And boy, that made him mad.

“That just got to me, for someone to say that my team can’t fight, can’t win without our starting point guard,’’ said Bullock, usually one of the most mild-mannered members of the team. “That lit a fire under me.”

And he took it out on the Bobcats, right when the Tar Heels needed it the most.

With Marshall (UNC’s Cousy Award finalist) on the bench in a suit because of a fractured wrist, and top scorer Harrison Barnes struggling to make just about anything, it was Bullock’s blaze -- from beyond the 3-point line and on the boards -- that helped push top-seeded UNC to a 73-65 overtime victory.

Bullock scored 12 of his 17 points after his accidental eavesdrop. As a result, the guard who missed the entire NCAA tournament last season because of knee surgery will be playing Sunday in the Midwest Regional Finals. The Tar Heels will play Kansas at the Edward Jones Dome.

“I think Reggie really grew up as a player tonight,’’ said Marshall, who declined to discuss the state of his fractured right wrist after the game. “People take it for granted, but he didn’t play in the NCAA tournament last year. This is his first time going through this. And … to have the [guts] to take those big shots and knock them down, that’s big-time. One of his downfalls is how unselfish he is. But he was huge for us tonight.”

Indeed, with little-used freshman point guard Stilman White (2 points, 6 assists, 0 turnovers) making his first start and senior wing-turned-backup-ballhandler Justin Watts (4 rebounds, 3 turnovers, 1 assist) backing him up, UNC built, then lost, a 15-point lead. Even against a smaller Ohio team -- its tallest starter was 6-foot-8, compared to UNC’s starting frontcourt of 7-foot Tyler Zeller, 6-11 John Henson and 6-8 Barnes -- the Tar Heels seemed out of sync without Marshall, who set the ACC record for assists in a season before breaking his wrist last Sunday.

[+] EnlargeNorth Carolina's Reggie Bullock
Shane Keyser/Getty ImagesUNC's Reggie Bullock scored 12 of his 17 points after overhearing a slight from Ohio's bench.
And they were sloppy, turning the ball over a season-high 24 times.

UNC also got a scare with 16:29 left, when Bullock limped out of a game after his surgically repaired left knee buckled while he was trying to grab a rebound.

“All I could think was, ‘Not another one. Not another bad knee,’’’ said Barnes, who had already seen two other UNC guards, Leslie McDonald and Dexter Strickland, sidelined by knee injuries this season.

But Bullock checked back in with 15:21 left, overheard the Ohio assistant’s comment, and told his team about it during the 12-minute TV timeout.

Then he got busy taking out his angst on the court.

With 11:26 left, he buried a much-needed 3 to give his team a 42-38 cushion.

With 7:36 left, he did it again, this time giving his team a 51-47 advantage.

And with 40 seconds left -- and with the 13th-seeded Bobcats leading by one -- he hit another big 3-pointer that gave his team a 63-61 lead.

“Right when I caught the ball, I heard my whole bench, from managers to everybody, say ‘Shoot!’” Bullock said. “And right then, I just pulled the trigger and I saw it go in. And I just was like, I was just thinking to myself, ‘It's like my time to perform.’ And it was a big shot for our team and all my teammates just believing in me to make those shots.”

A jumper by Ohio’s Walter Offutt (26 points), and then a miss by Barnes, sent the game to the five-minute extra period. But it was Bullock -- who else? -- who opened overtime with -- what else? -- a 3-pointer.

"He was,'' Zeller said, "incredible."

The 6-7 athlete from Kinston, N.C., wasn’t the only standout in the survival. Zeller, who finished with 20 points and a career-high 22 rebounds, became only the fourth player in the last 30 seasons to record 20-20 in a Men’s Basketball Championship, and the first since Tim Duncan in 1997, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Henson added 14 points and 10 rebounds.

But Bullock (6-for-13 overall, 5-for-10 on 3-pointers) was especially key on a night when Barnes made only 3 of 16 shots. And when Ohio got hot in the second half, making 50 percent of its shots after going 8-for-35 in the first half.

“I think we feel like we got away with one,’’ Zeller said. “Ohio played the better game, they hit a lot of shots, I think we just were able to make a lot of plays at the end that made us capable of pulling it out.”

Including a few from Bullock, who also grabbed 10 rebounds to record his second career double-double.

“I want Kendall out there, but he wasn’t able to be out there -- he was helping us fight from the bench,’’ Bullock said. “And I wanted to show that our team could still compete.”

Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.

Video: North Carolina's Stilman White

March, 24, 2012

North Carolina freshman Stilman White, who made his first career start against Ohio, talks about his team's 73-65 overtime victory over Ohio.

ST. LOUIS -- Quick thoughts from North Carolina's 73-65 overtime victory over Ohio in the Sweet 16 on Friday.

Overview: On a night when it didn't have star point guard Kendall Marshall, No. 1 seed North Carolina couldn't have been more thankful for Reggie Bullock after its overtime win against No. 13 seed Ohio. A sophomore, Bullock helped bail out a sloppy Tar Heels team that clearly wasn't at its best with its floor leader out and leading scorer Harrison Barnes struggling to find his groove.

Bullock's clutch 3-pointer with 39 seconds remaining turned a 61-60 deficit into a 63-61 lead. Ohio forced a tie on its next possession when Walter Offutt was fouled while making a layup. Offut squandered the opportunity for a 3-point play when he missed the ensuing free throw. Offut blocked Barnes' game-winning shot attempt on the other end to force overtime.

Bullock came up huge again moments later when he opened the extra period with a 3-pointer to put his team ahead 66-63. The shot set the tone for the game's final five minutes, when North Carolina cruised to a victory by outscoring the scrappy Bobcats, 10-2.

Bullock finished with 17 points and made five of his 10 attempts from beyond the arc. The victory had to be special for the Kinston, N.C., native, who missed last season's NCAA tournament with a knee injury.

Fearless as Bullock was Friday, the best player on the floor was North Carolina's Tyler Zeller, who 20 points and a career-high 23 rebounds. Eight of Zeller's boards came on the offensive end, which helped North Carolina outscore Ohio 14-4 on second-chance points.

Barnes, who averages a team-high 17.4 points, was just 3-of-16 from the field Friday and finished with 12 points. Offut had a game-high 26 points for Ohio on 10-of-18 shooting.

Gutsy as the victory may have been, North Carolina's chances of advancing to the Final Four appear to be in jeopardy without Marshall, who is generally regarded as one of the top two or three point guards in all of college basketball. Marshall, who injured his wrist in last Sunday's victory over Creighton, averages 9.7 assists and is the key reason the Tar Heels have been able to play at a fast, frenetic pace all season.

With combo guard Dexter Strickland out with a knee injury, North Carolina's only option Friday was to turn to freshman Stilman White, who entered the game averaging 4.3 minutes and 0.7 points on the season. Considering the circumstances, White did a more than admirable job Friday. His only points came on a pair of free throws, but he had 6 assists in 32 minutes and didn't commit a single turnover.

Still, the Tar Heels will have a tough time beating either Kansas or North Carolina State on Sunday without Marshall, whose status is uncertain.

Turning point: Bullock's 3-pointer at the beginning of overtime set the tone for the extra period and appeared to deflate Ohio. Bobcats guard D.J. Cooper missed a 3-pointer on the other end on Ohio's next possession, and UNC responded with a 17-footer by Barnes. At that point, the Tar Heels had a 68-63 lead and momentum they would never relinquish.

Key player: Bullock's 3-pointers were huge and Zeller, as he's been all season, was steady from start to finish. But in this situation it's hard not to praise White for his performance on such a big stage. As coach Roy Williams likes to say, White helped the Tar Heels by not hurting them.

Key stat: North Carolina has now won 11 consecutive Sweet 16 games.

Miscellaneous: North Carolina opened the game on a 26-11 run before allowing an 11-3 march by Ohio to end the half. It was 29-22 at intermission. ... Ohio shot just 23 percent in the first half. ... Barnes missed 11 of his first 12 shots.

Up next: The Tar Heels will take on No. 2 seed Kansas. The teams haven't met since the 2008 Final Four. Kansas won that game and went on to win the NCAA title with an overtime victory over Memphis two nights later.
ST. LOUIS -- Ohio point guard D.J. Cooper received so many messages after his 13th-seeded team topped South Florida to reach the NCAA Sweet 16 that he couldn’t keep count.

But the most special one came from his mom, Dionne.

“She has this habit of texting me during the game -- even though I can’t read them until after," he said, noting that he’ll sometimes have five or six waiting for him after the final horn. “In this one, she told me how proud she was of me, and how much she loved me. She always does … but that was an especially good feeling, in that moment.”

[+] EnlargeD.J. Cooper
Tim G. Zechar/Icon SMIOhio point guard D.J. Cooper can score, but his defense has proved to be just as dangerous.
The goal now: to experience a similar feeling (and moment) after his team’s matchup with top-seeded North Carolina on Friday night at the Edward Jones Dome.

With Tar Heels point guard Kendall Marshall’s availability in doubt after surgery to repair his fractured wrist Monday, Cooper’s play will be especially key to whether the Bobcats -- the lowest-seeded squad to make a regional semifinal since Bradley in 2006 -- keep their postseason run alive.

The 5-foot-11 athlete from Chicago averages 14.9 points, but more importantly, 2.3 steals a game on a team that ranks fourth in the nation in swipes per contest (9.3 per game) and sixth in turnover margin (plus-4.2).

That’s important against a foe that might have to start a freshman point guard (Stilman White) who is averaging only 4.3 minutes per game.

“All year, coach has been talking about playing with our hands up, keeping it tight, being able to guard our yard," Cooper said. “And that’s what we have to do Friday, too, no matter which [point] guard we’re playing against.”

Also key against the Tar Heels will be getting back in transition. Not only does UNC play fast but it boasts one of the best frontcourts in the country in 7-foot Tyler Zeller, 6-11 John Henson and 6-8 Harrison Barnes. The tallest contributors in the Bobcats’ rotation are 6-8, and no one averages more than five rebounds per game.

Still, Henson called Ohio a dangerous team.

“They're shooting better than they shot all year, 3-point wise, playing more confident," he said. “I mean, even in practice, when our [scout] guys are running their offense, it's tough to guard. So it's going to be a challenge, and we're going to play hard and see what happens.”

Ohio coach John Groce said his team is preparing as if Marshall will play but has contingency plans if he does not.

And even though he doesn’t know exactly who his opponent will be, Cooper is sure of one thing: His mom will be sending texts throughout the game, offering comments and feedback.

“It’s fun to look back and read what she was thinking," he said, smiling.

He hopes that looking back after Friday’s game will give him that especially good feeling again.


OHIO: Cooper. The junior is a do-it-all guy, averaging 20 points, 4 rebounds and 6 assists in the NCAA tournament. “He's really a gifted kid who, the last couple games, has really been dominant for them," UNC coach Roy Williams said.

NORTH CAROLINA: White and Justin Watts. UNC’s bigger guys should be able to have big games -- if the fill-in point guards can get them the ball. White and Watts, the third and fourth ballhandling options at the beginning of the season, have 24 assists combined this season. Marshall, by comparison, had 21 in his previous two games. Williams has stressed that these two don’t need to play like the Cousy Award finalist, but they do need to protect the ball from the thief-prone Bobcats and get it into the hands of the playmakers.

WHAT TO WATCH: Outside vs. inside.

Ohio has made 15 of 34 3-pointers in the NCAA tournament, led by Cooper and Walter Offutt. That’s been an Achilles' heel for the Tar Heels, who struggled against foes (at Florida State and versus Duke, for instance) that got hot from behind the arc.

North Carolina, meanwhile, is at its best when its frontcourt is playing its best. UNC needs Zeller, Henson, Barnes and James Michael McAdoo to use their size advantage on the boards -- and to finish plays.

Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.