UNC left to wonder what could have been

ST. LOUIS — Kendall Marshall fought back tears. He searched for the right words. It was a moment that he wasn’t supposed to feel.

But after being unable to contribute to top-seeded North Carolina’s 80-67 loss to Kansas in the Midwest Regional finals Sunday, Marshall and the Tar Heels had no choice but to say it: What if?

What if the point guard — who set the ACC and UNC single-season assist record this year — hadn’t broken his wrist and had been able to play against Kansas? What if starting guard Dexter Strickland hadn’t been lost for the year in January with a torn ACL?

What if the same injury hadn’t ended the season of key reserve Leslie McDonald before it even started back in June? And what if forward John Henson hadn’t played the final games with a sprained wrist and also hobbled through Sunday’s matchup against Kansas, having rolled his ankle early in the game?

Marshall sat in a stunned and silent North Carolina locker room late Sunday night, pondering the same question. But as the talented sophomore tried to explain his feelings, he kept coming back to the same thing.

“It hurts,” Marshall said. “I feel like I kind of let my team down.”

Marshall badly wanted to play Sunday, just six days after having surgery to fix his fractured right wrist. He awoke expecting to play and arrived at the gym for a morning workout hoping to push through the pain.

But as Marshall and the Tar Heels found themselves saying several times this year, maybe it just wasn’t meant to be. It took only a few minutes for him to determine playing wasn’t an option.

“I was going to just tough it out but it wasn’t a toughness factor,” Marshall said. “It was the fact that I couldn’t catch or pass. If I probably had three or four more days, maybe it would have been closer, but even if I tried to play, I wouldn’t have been effective.

“I think I would have hurt my team more than helped them today.”

So reserve guard Stilman White started in his place for the second straight game. And he again filled in admirably, dishing out seven assists and not committing any turnovers in 28 key minutes for the Tar Heels.

Usually reserved to cheering on the end of the bench in crunch time, the guard was thrust right into the middle of it — and performed much better than most would have expected.

In two games without Marshall, White had 13 total assists and no turnovers in 60 minutes. But that wasn’t enough for White to keep the blame off himself, repeatedly bringing up his three missed three-pointers and 1-for-5 shooting night.

“It feels a lot worse because I feel a little bit like I let the team down,” White said. “This team had national title aspirations and with Kendall going down, that obviously hurt us. I just wanted to get there so bad and we didn’t quite make it.

“I was playing as hard as I could. I knew with Kendall going down that that was a big loss for us but I just tried to play as hard as I could and get this team to the Final Four.”

Marshall’s loss couldn’t be understated. The far more dominant Tar Heels needed overtime to beat 13th seeded Ohio without him Friday, committing an uncharacteristic 24 turnovers.

The facilitator was among the national leaders with 9.75 assists per game, and his 351 assists set new North Carolina and ACC single-season records. The Tar Heels are 27-1 the past two seasons when he records at least nine assists in a game.

He had double-doubles in points and assists in each of the Tar Heel’s first two NCAA Tournament games and upped his scoring to 14.8 points per game in his last six games compared to just 6.8 points in UNC’s first 30 games.

But as Kansas held North Carolina to twenty points in the second half, two field goals in the final 12:40 and ended the game on a 12-0 run, Marshall sat hopelessly on the sidelines.

“Stilman played phenomenal,” Marshall said. “To be thrown into a situation like this, where you’re asked to lead a No. 1 seed North Carolina to the Final Four, I think he did a heck of a job.

“It was tough from the side because there was nothing I could do to help my team. You could just see it kind of slipping away as each possession went by and my team, they fought. They played hard tonight. Everybody in this locker room believed we could win.”

But for the second year in a row, North Carolina’s season ended one game short of the Final Four. Last year, the No. 2 seeded Tar Heels lost in the regional final to fourth-seeded Kentucky. But the pain didn’t feel the same Sunday. It felt worse.

The Tar Heels entered this season picked to cut down the nets in New Orleans by plenty in the college basketball world. But nobody expected them to suffer all the adversity thrown their way.

And nobody would have expected them to handle it as well as they did. In a game of bounces, the Heels couldn’t get one to go their way. And a promising season again ended short because of it.

“It’s tough,” Marshall said. “You walk into the locker room and you look at the faces and realize how much it means to every member of this team. We wanted to do it for each other this year. We felt like we let a golden opportunity pass by last year and we didn’t want to do it again this year.

“It’s hard. I feel like our team has battled through so much the past two years that this was the time that we were going to break through. To come up short once again in the same game, it’s tough.”

With Tyler Zeller set to graduate and others, including Marshall and Harrison Barnes potentially set to leave early for the NBA, the Tar Heels could have a completely different look next year.

And that adds to their pain, knowing that when they look back at their 32-win season at some point down the line, the same two words will continue to creep back into their head: What if?

“I’ll play it over for a long time,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “I’ll say ‘What if?’ for a long time.”

So will everybody else.