ST. LOUIS--- UNC found itself playing with one arm tied behind its back in Sunday's Midwest Regional Final against Kansas, as sophomore point guard Kendall Marshall was ruled out for the game approximately 90 minutes before tipoff.
Without Marshall, and playing in the midst of a heavy pro-Kansas crowd in the Edward Jones Dome, the Tar Heels put forth a mighty effort for 35 minutes, but fell apart down the stretch on the way to a 80-67 setback to the Jayhawks, which ends UNC's season at 32-6 and one step short of the Final Four.
"There's no question at this time in college basketball as a coach you hurt. And you hurt for your team, you hurt for these kids that for about 34, 35 minutes were a part of a fantastic basketball game," said UNC head coach Roy Williams immediately afterwards.
"It is what it is," added senior Tyler Zeller, who tallied 12 points and six rebounds in his final game as a Tar Heel. "It all comes back to my faith. My faith has gotten me through a lot of things. And I think my faith is the reason who I am today."
"Unfortunately it hurts extremely bad right now. Maybe I'll understand it later," Zeller added. "Maybe I won't. But you've just got to go with it."
The Tar Heels looked like they might just be fine without Marshall in the early going, as Carolina came out and made 11 of its first 13 shots to take a 23-21 lead eight minutes in. The game was tied 33-33 following a nifty Justin Watts drive and left-handed lay-in when Kansas promptly went on a 7-0 run, taking a 40-33 lead at the 3:38 mark of the opening half.
It was a time when UNC could have really dug a hole for itself but the Tar Heels rallied, as a pair of dunks by Harrison Barnes and multiple other conversions in the final minutes led to a 47-47 tie at halftime.
All things considered the Tar Heels had to feel good about going into halftime tied with Kansas, but the Jayhawks came out at the start of the second half and instantly assumed control, scoring seven answered points to take a 54-47 lead at the 17:20 mark.
"They (KU) hurt us early in the second half on the offensive boards, just getting so many rebounds and putting it back in," said Coach Williams. "We even had one time where we blocked the shot, and it came down and their kid caught it and laid it up."
Barnes stopped the bleeding for UNC with a jumper, and then the Tar Heels put together another rally, climaxed by a James Michael McAdoo lefty runner in the paint, which combined with a free throw gave UNC a 59-58 lead with 12:30 to go.
Once again Kansas rallied, as the Jayhawks went on a 8-2 run to take a 66-61 lead with just under 10 minutes to go, energizing the pro-KU crowd into a frenzy.
"It was a game of runs, and we didn't answer the last one," said Williams. "They would go up ahead six or eight points, and we would catch up. And they would go ahead six or eight and we would catch up. And it was that kind of game."
UNC pulled within 68-67 following a Barnes free throw at the 3:58 mark, but it was the last point the Tar Heels would get, as Kansas finished the game on a decisive 12-0 run.
The Tar Heels got a huge blocked shot and had a chance to take the lead following Barnes' free throw, but in a critical turning point UNC committed a devastating turnover, which was followed by an Elijah Johnson three-pointer, which made it 71-67 in favor of Kansas.
Seconds later KU caught another break when Zeller forced contact but didn't get a foul call on Kansas center Jeff Withey, which would have fouled him out of the game, and the ball bounded back to the Jayhawks, who got another three-point play to make the score 74-67.
That play was followed shortly after by a Kansas dunk, which effectively put the game away in the final two minutes.
"It was a four-point game and and it quickly became nine and we had a timeout," said Zeller. "I think we still thought we had a chance then, but we came down and they made a great stop and we didn't make our shot. So they came down and hit their free throws and once it hit double digits, it was tough. I mean, under a minute, it's tough to be able to come back from that deficit."
"You have to congratulate Kansas and wish them good luck, because it was a great basketball game like I say for 34, 35 minutes. And the last four or five minutes, they played much, much better than we did, and their coach coached much better than I did," said Williams.
Kansas got huge performances from Tyshawn Taylor, who led all scorers in the game with 22 points, as well as Midwest Regional MVP Thomas Robinson, who poured in 18 points and added nine rebounds for the Jayhawks.
"It was anyone's game for the first 32 minutes or whatever," said KU head coach Bill Self. "And then we got some consecutive defensive stops which we hadn't been able to get the first 30 minutes, and made a ton of plays---individual plays, great team plays down the stretch.
"But we know as a group we also caught a break today, too, with Kendall not playing," Self continued. "I'm not saying that would have changed the outcome, but we caught a break."
As one might expect it was a somber scene in the Tar Heel locker room, as players answered questions with a softness in their voices and tears in their eyes.
No matter who comes back and who doesn't to next year's North Carolina squad, this is the last time this particular group of UNC players will ever come together to play.
"I enjoyed coaching these kids and you hate it for them, and that's what it's all about," said Coach Williams. "This is college basketball and this is what it's all about. It's about the players. It's not about the coaches. It's about the players and about the name on the front of the jersey. And I had a marvelous group."
"It hurts," added freshman Stilman White, who performed admirably over the weekend with no turnovers in his first two UNC career starts. "This was a great team, and we had great goals and it doesn't feel like we quite achieved them. But we played as hard as we could, and came up a little bit short."