Published March 24, 2012
ST. LOUIS – North Carolina's path to another Final Four runs right through Roy Williams' old neighborhood.
Williams and his current team, the top-seeded Tar Heels, will face his old team Kansas in the Midwest Regional finals Sunday. It's been almost nine years since Williams left the Jayhawks to return "home," and whatever bad feelings there might have been about his departure have long since subsided.
But it sure does make for another juicy storyline in a tournament that seems to be filled with them.
"The programs are certainly tied together for a lot of different reasons," Kansas coach Bill Self said. "It will be two really good teams hooking up."
On paper, that is. On Friday, both Kansas and North Carolina showed plenty of flaws.
North Carolina (32-5) needed overtime to escape with a 73-65 victory over 13th-seeded Ohio to advance to its 25th regional final, and sixth under Williams. If Walter Offutt had made the go-ahead free throw on a three-point play with 25 seconds left in regulation, the Bobcats would have been the first team seeded 13th or worse to play in a regional final since 1985.
The Jayhawks (30-6) struggled to make shots, run offense and get into a flow against North Carolina State. They even squandered an eight-point lead in the final few minutes, failing to wrap up the win until Richard Howell's off-balance heave at the buzzer came up well short.
"We feel like we got away with one," said Tyler Zeller, whose 20 points and a career-high 22 rebounds was one of three double-doubles for the Tar Heels. "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."
The Tar Heels sorely missed point guard Kendall Marshall, perhaps their most irreplaceable player and the steadying hand behind their fast-paced attack. They turned the ball over a whopping 24 times, four more than they had in the last two games combined, and every player except Stilman White, the freshman who replaced Marshall, had at least two miscues.
North Carolina did have a 33-rebound advantage, but the Tar Heels had little answer for Ohio's outside shots.
After trailing by as much as 15 in the first half, Ohio got hot from long range, going 8 of 13 from beyond the arc in the second half. A 3 by Nick Kellogg with 8:28 to play gave Ohio its first lead, 47-46.
Offutt tied the game at 63 on an off-balance drive and drew a foul from White. But his foul shot was way left, the only free throw the Bobcats (29-8) missed in eight attempts, and Zeller grabbed the rebound.
Ohio missed all six of its shots in overtime, and Harrison Barnes made up for a dismal shooting night by scoring five of Carolina's 10 points to secure the win. Barnes finished with 12 points on 3 of 16 shooting.
"One free throw away," Offutt said. "As a leader on this team, I take responsibility that I've got to hit that free throw. ... It just feels terrible to kind of let my team down in that sort of way."
Williams has already said he doubts the Tar Heels will get Marshall back for Sunday's game. He didn't even dress Friday night, sitting on the bench in a snazzy-looking suit.
"He still hasn't done anything," Williams said. "But North Carolina's going to play on Sunday. We're happy about that."
Even if he might prefer another opponent.
Kansas and North Carolina, the bluest of college basketball's bluebloods, have played only once since Williams left, a game Tar Heels fans would probably prefer to forget. Kansas walloped the Tar Heels 84-66 in the 2008 Final Four, and the Jayhawks went on to win their first title since Danny and the Miracles 20 years earlier.
Kansas no longer has Mario Chalmers, but the Jayhawks still have plenty of firepower to go along with their trademark nasty defense.
Thomas Robinson had 18 points and 15 rebounds against the 11th-seeded Wolfpack (24-13), Jeff Withey blocked 10 shots to finish one shy of the NCAA tournament record.
But Kansas shot less than 38 percent from the field, and made only one — count it, one — bucket from 3-point range.
"There's nothing we're doing wrong," Robinson said. "The looks are there. The shots are just not going down. So just keep running our offense, keep doing what we do and we won't do anything different. Like I said, (the lid) will come off eventually."
C.J. Leslie had 18 points to lead N.C. State, despite sitting much of the second half with four fouls. Scott Wood finished with 12 points on 2-for-10 shooting, though his biggest error wasn't a missed shot but the shot he never even got to attempt.
N.C. State had pulled within 58-57 on a transition layup by C.J. Williams with just over a minute remaining. The teams swapped possessions before Kansas managed to get a layup from Elijah Johnson off an inbound pass from Taylor with 13.5 seconds left.
The Wolfpack crossed midcourt and called a timeout to set up a play, which was designed to get the ball to Wood off a baseline pass. Instead, a skip pass went high and the sharpshooter stepped out of bounds trying to pull it in, giving the ball back to Kansas with 5 seconds to go.
Robinson was fouled and missed the free throw at the other end, but a pass down court and Howell's tightly guarded shot at the buzzer came up nowhere close, allowing Kansas to escape.
"We've got to play better," Self said. "But we're so fortunate and happy we get an opportunity to try and do so."