ST. LOUIS – When John Henson twisted his ankle in the first half of the Midwest Regional finals, then hobbled around with a bad wrist and worse ankle for the remainder of the game, Tar Heels everywhere felt like Tom Cruise’s character in “A Few Good Men.”
And the hits just keep on comin’.
Starters Dexter Strickland and Kendall Marshall, as well as North Carolina’s best bench scorer, Leslie McDonald, already were on the bench in suits because of injuries.
Inevitably, the Tar Heels, who received 62 of 65 first place votes in the preseason poll, can’t help but feel unsatisfied.
“I may question why God put us in this position, but at the same time, He has a reason for everything,” North Carolina center Tyler Zeller said. “So you just got to accept it. And unfortunately, it hurts extremely bad right now. Maybe I’ll understand it later. Maybe I won’t. But you just got to go with it.”
North Carolina played and won many important games without Strickland and McDonald but wasn’t the same unit without Marshall, who broke a bone in his wrist in the third round against Creighton.
Without Marshall, the NCAA leader in assist-to-turnover ratio at 3.5-to-1, North Carolina turned over the ball a season-high 24 times and needed overtime to beat No. 13 seed Ohio.
Against Kansas, the Tar Heels faded in the final four minutes.
“Kendall’s a security blanket, and he’s trying to coach on the bench,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “But he’s a lot better player than he is a coach.”
Marshall practiced Saturday, but even the short session caused him pain. He said he was three or four days away from returning.
As well as Stilman White played in Marshall’s absence – recording 13 assists and no turnovers in two games – the offense just wasn’t itself.
North Carolina, the second-best scoring offense in the nation, scored four fast break points against Kansas.
“We can’t expect him to go out there and be Superman, but the main thing that I was proud of was he continued to be aggressive,” Marshall said. “He wasn’t afraid of the moment. He didn’t play a perfect game but nobody did.
“I don’t think you could ask much more of what he did (Sunday). To be thrown into a situation where’s you’re asked to lead a top five team in the country to a Final Four, it’s tough.”
Many Tar Heels sat at their lockers following the Jayhawks’ 80-67 victory, staring at nothing.
The heartbreak was palpable.
“There’s no doubt about it. If everybody was healthy, the results of the game would have been totally different,” Strickland said. “That’s something that we had to play through. Kendall’s hurt, John’s not 100 percent, me and Leslie didn’t play.
“We had to adjust to our team, and we did pretty well with the injuries that we had.”
The Tar Heels’ locker room, which Williams half-jokingly compared to a MASH unit earlier in the week, provided a handful of excellent stories.
White was one of them. Marshall playing coach was another.
So was Reggie Bullock, whose clutch efforts saved North Carolina from being knocked out by Ohio.
Yet North Carolina had to carry on with an impossibly compromised top six, three of whom were out and another who certainly was hindered.
“I looked two days ago, Ohio, the top nine guys played. They had one guy miss one game,” Williams said. “Kansas, the top eight had one guy miss one game.
(The) last four years, we have had more adversity than I’ve ever seen in my life. But boy, I’ve had great kids.”
Williams said players like White were part of the reason that he loves to coach, but he can’t help but replaying the loss to Kansas in his mind.
The losses are tough on Williams but even he took away positives.
“We learned some lessons every day,” he said. “I know I love my team. Man, they were fun to be around, and they were facing a lot of adversity.”
As Williams concluded his press conference, he walked down the long, concrete corridor of the Edward Jones Dome back to the locker room.
Kansas, where he coached for 15 years, was celebrating outside, its haunting chant reverberating throughout the building.
Rocccckkk, Challlllllk, Jayyyyyhawkkkk!
The hurt on Williams’ face was all but verbalized. He loved this team. And he’s certain they deserved better.
Nick Piotrowicz can be reach at 407-9952 or npiotrowicz@ rmtelegram.com