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Attrition finally undercuts Carolina

Eddy Landreth

By Eddy Landreth
Staff Writer

Luck at the highest level of collegiate and professional sports is not indicated by the bounce of the ball but the health of the top athletes performing for a team.

Perhaps no team with a legitimate chance to win the 2012 national championship suffered from more bad luck than North Carolina.

Guard Leslie McDonald spent the year in a suit on the sideline after a preseason knee injury knocked him out for the year. Then on Jan. 19, starting guard Dexter Strickland landed awkwardly and suffered torn ligaments in his right knee. Strickland put on a suit and joined McDonald on the sideline, with his season at an end.

That would have been enough for anyone, but the Tar Heels had more to come. There were turned ankles and other ailments along the way, but the next serious blow came in the opening game of the ACC Tournament in Atlanta.

John Henson, the ACC defensive player of the year, fell on his left hand and sprained his wrist. He missed the rest of the tournament, and UNC lost to Florida State in the final.

Henson returned for the NCAA Tournament and played well. UNC cruised in its opener, and then it ran into a group of thugs with Creighton on their jerseys. By game’s end, the Bluejays had hacked at Henson’s sore arm in an obvious attempt to hurt him. If Creighton could not win the game, the Bluejays seemed determined that Carolina would not win the tournament.

With about 10 minutes left in the game, a Creighton player hit point guard Kendall Marshall from behind on the break. Marshall hit the floor hard.

Marshall played almost the rest of the game, but afterward X-rays showed he had suffered a fractured right wrist. He underwent surgery the next day.

“I’ve got a bunch of kids who have handled a lot of adversity,” Williams said. “Last year … I dismissed a senior leader from the team two weeks before practice started. We have a guy leave in the middle of the year.

“This year, everybody in this room probably would have picked Leslie as one of our top six players. You lose him. Then you lose Dexter. Then John goes down during the [ACC] tournament. Then Kendall goes down. This team has been pretty dadgum special with their toughness.”

When the top-seeded Tar Heels arrived in St. Louis to play Ohio in the round of 16, the kid they call Butter was not there to spread it on, and the Tar Heels ran a little thin without him.

UNC had to go to overtime to defeat Ohio and advance to play Kansas in the regional final.

“Any time you lose somebody who leads your team in assists – Kendall’s got over 300 assists on the season – so any time you lose somebody like that,” senior forward Tyler Zeller said, “it’s going to be a little more difficult. I know that I felt open a couple times, but it was something that Kendall’s been able to make a spectacular pass to get it there; whereas Stilman White and Justin Watts haven’t played with me as long and don’t necessarily see it.”

As it turned out, Marshall was much more than a facilitator who made the correct passes. He was the adhesive that bound a powerful team, a team shaped over time and through adversity.

Removing Butter allowed friction to work its way into the Tar Heels’ offense.

Carolina played spectacular basketball in the first half of the regional final, going to halftime tied at 47 with the Jayhawks. But in the second half, too many jump shots, too much one-on-one and not enough scoring from the frontline helped Kansas limit UNC to 20 points.

“I looked two days ago – Ohio, the top nine guys played, and they had one guy miss one game,” Williams said.

“Kansas, the top eight guys had one guy miss one game. Last four years, we have had more adversity than I’ve ever seen in my entire life. But, boy, I’ve had great kids.”

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