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Sweet 16 Recap East Regional - (2) North Carolina 81, (11) Marquette 63


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It was not a tennis score, but “40-15” at the half was accurate; as a result, the North Carolina Tar Heels are going to play a game on Sunday that owns all the stature of a Rafael Nadal-Roger Federer Wimbledon final.

Yes, Kentucky is calling for the Carolina crew in an East Regional final laden with box-office appeal.

North Carolina dismantled Marquette in the first half of Friday’s first East Regional semifinal at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey. The Tar Heels allowed the Golden Eagles no assists and forced 12 turnovers on eight steals in the half; they used a 19-0 run in an 8:48 stretch to blot out Marquette’s only lead of the game (at 10-8) and convert it into a 27-10 advantage that put a late-arriving crowd into a sleepy state before the night’s rousing affair between Ohio State and Kentucky. The Tar Heels kept pushing the pace – and their manifest advantage – past the halftime mark, so much so that they were able to build a 33-point advantage early in the second half before letting off the pressure.

UNC coach Roy Williams is now 24-4 in NCAA tournament play with the Tar Heels, a glossy record that obviously translates into deep March Madness runs. Verily, this is Carolina’s fifth trip to the Elite Eight in seven years. Two years after claiming the national championship, and one year after missing the tournament (Carolina was the NIT runner-up in 2010), the Tar Heels started the season with difficulty; the young roster didn’t gel until after losing to Minnesota, Vanderbilt, and ACC also-ran Georgia Tech (by 20, on January 16). Since then, Carolina has only lost twice, to Duke; although struggling early in conference and NCAA tournament games over the past two weeks, UNC was able to cruise in the second half to an easy victory this time.

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North Carolina was led by Tyler Zeller with 27 points and 15 rebounds, Harrison Barnes with 20 points, and John Henson with 14 points, 12 rebounds, and five blocks. Freshman Kendall Marshall, who took over point guard duties at the beginning of February, had seven points and six assists, but it was Zeller, Barnes, and Henson’s combined 61 points inside that demolished Marquette after a sluggish start in the game’s opening 10 minutes. Once Carolina revved up its engines and unleashed that 19-0 blitzkrieg, a deer-in-the-headlights Marquette roster never found a way to make this game competitive.

The Golden Eagles were hapless in the first half; only when the Tar Heels eased up on the pace and began to liberally substitute players were they able to pull within 30 points. MU coach Buzz Williams called his next-to-last timeout only two minutes into the second half, but the damage was done. Marquette finished its season 22-15, leaving Connecticut as the only remaining Big East team in the tournament.

Davante Gardener led the Golden Eagles with 16 points; Jimmy Butler posted 14 points, Jae Crowder added 11, and Junior Cadougan chipped in 10 points to round out double-digit scoring for the Golden Eagles. Darius Johnson-Odom was limited to seven points and four rebounds, his lowest output for the season. He also scored only seven points against South Florida on February 7.

North Carolina will play Kentucky in the regional final on Sunday at 5:05 p.m. Eastern. Roy Williams has never met John Calipari in the NCAA tournament, but his Tar Heels did defeat the Wildcats on December 4 at a game in Chapel Hill, 75-73. Carolina and Kentucky have met several times in the tournament; the last such occasion was a Dean Smith-led Tar Heel victory over a Rick Pitino-coached Wildcat squad in 1995’s Elite Eight. How fitting it is, then, that two of college basketball’s five greatest programs (alongside UCLA, Kansas and Indiana) will meet in the Elite Eight once more with two different but very accomplished coaches calling the shots.

By Matt Zemek
DFN Sports Senior Staff Writer
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