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March 25, 2011

Heels feeling Elite

NEWARK, N.J. -- It wasn't all that strange that a steal-and-dunk from hometown boy Dexter Strickland put the finishing touches on North Carolina's win against Marquette.

What was strange was that there were still almost 19 minutes left in the game.

Nonetheless, Strickland's jam -- UNC's sixth-straight point to open up the second half and a 31-point lead -- emotionally iced a game in which Carolina's defense helped it to one of its best starts of the season and, eventually, an 81-63 win against 11th-seeded Marquette.

"There have been comments from other teams about coming out stronger than us," said Strickland, who had four steals. "I think that motivated us."

It was the 10th-consecutive win in a regional semifinal for the second-seeded Tar Heels (29-7), who had a season-low seven turnovers.

Carolina jumped out to a 25-point halftime lead and built the advantage to as many as 32 points before the Golden Eagles (22-15) attempted to mount a second-half comeback.

Marquette began using full-court pressure and a zone defense to try to disrupt Carolina, and it worked well enough for the Eagles to cut UNC's lead to 14 points with four-plus minutes to go.

But it never felt like there was much of a real threat after Carolina's huge start.

"It's extremely hard to play with the lead," UNC point guard Kendall Marshall said. "You start to question what are great shots and when to attack."

In the first half, great shots were plentiful for Carolina: they came in transition off of Marquette turnovers or deep in the paint from Tyler Zeller and John Henson.

Both of UNC's big men recorded a double-double, while Zeller led the Tar Heels with 27 points and 12 rebounds. Henson had 14 and 12, and Harrison Barnes scored 20 points and grabbed nine boards.

That trio took 53 of UNC's 74 field-goal attempts.

Marquette, on the other hand, shot 36.5 percent in the game even after hitting more than half its shots in the second half. In the game, the Golden Eagles were 2 for 16 from 3-point range.

The reason Strickland's early second-half dunk felt like an exclamation point was because the Tar Heels looked like they had the game won by halftime.

Marquette's 15 first-half points were the second-fewest the Heels had ever allowed in a half of an NCAA Tournament game.

The Golden Eagles went without a field goal for nearly nine minutes, a stretch that included 13 consecutive missed shots.

Carolina, meanwhile, went on a 19-0 run. Keep in mind, that stretch alone would have outscored Marquette for the half.

Even when the Golden Eagles did break their drought, with a line-drive jumper from Jimmy Butler, the thrill was short lived as they watched Barnes come back down the floor and drill a 3-pointer to push UNC's lead to 18.

"I looked up at the clock, and it was 10-8 in their favor, and the next time I looked at the
clock is when I went off at halftime and it was 40-15," UNC coach Roy Williams said. "I knew we were doing very well to say the least."

The first-half numbers were staggering in depicting just how bad Marquette's offense was.

First off, there was the 6-for-30 shooting - a 20 percent clip.

That was the second-lowest percentage ever allowed by Carolina in a half of NCAA Tournament play.

There were the eight misses from 3-point range (where Marquette didn't make a shot until less than five minutes remained in the game).

And, perhaps the starkest contrast: the Golden Eagles had 12 turnovers without registering a single assist.

Carolina turned those 12 turnovers into 17 points - again, enough by itself to outscore Marquette in the half.

"We were completely uncharacteristic in every facet of the game," Marquette coach Buzz Williams said. "That's a complete credit to them."

Zeller and Henson made it tough for Marquette's shorter front line to score around the basket. Carolina's guards, meanwhile were focused on denying passes on the perimeter.

Having both of those things working at the same time - in turn, producing offense for Carolina, too - was just too much for the Golden Eagles to handle.

"I think that was the biggest thing that made it difficult - every pass, every shot was contested," said Zeller, who set or tied career highs in assists, steals and offensive rebounds. "I could tell they were getting frustrated."

And for a change - at least lately, when UNC has fallen behind by double figures in four of its past five games - it was the Tar Heels who had the fast start.


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