ST. LOUIS — From his seat on the North Carolina bench, Kendall Marshall watched the Tar Heels struggle without him during their 73-65 overtime victory against Ohio on Friday night, and he watched UNC's offense falter against the Bobcats' difficult, intrusive defense.
UNC coach Roy Williams didn't think it would be easy without Marshall, who six days ago sustained a broken bone in his right wrist. And it wasn't easy for the top seed, which with the victory against No. 13 Ohio advanced to the region final Sunday.
Still, after what was perhaps UNC's most grinding, hard-fought victory of the season, Marshall had a wide smile along with a crisp suit in the locker room.
"We still found a way to adjust, which was huge," said Marshall, who declined to discuss his status for Sunday. "I'm so proud of my team that they found a way to win. We've fought through extreme circumstances."
The Tar Heels (32-5) nearly didn't make it to the final. Reggie Bullock, UNC's sophomore guard, made a 3-pointer with 40 seconds left in regulation to put the Heels ahead 63-61. Ohio's Walter Offutt, who played a big role in defeating USF on Sunday, tied it with a layup with 25 seconds to play, and he was fouled on the play.
Offutt missed the free throw, which gave UNC a chance to win in regulation. But Harrison Barnes, who struggled through 3 of 16 shooting, lost possession on his way to the basket, and the Bobcats (29-8) missed a shot from near midcourt as the buzzer sounded.
"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."
Bullock, who finished with 17 points, began OT with a 3-pointer, and the Heels never trailed.
"Awful proud of our guys for the way that they fought," Ohio coach John Groce said. "But as I told them in the locker room, there's nothing I can say to them at this point that's going to take away the sting of getting beat in that one. They've got a lot of pride, and they believed all year that we could compete and beat anybody that we played. That was no different heading into (Friday's) game."
The Bobcats' defense flustered and frustrated UNC throughout. With freshman Stilman White and senior Justin Watts sharing point guard duties in place of Marshall, the Tar Heels committed a season-high 24 turnovers.
Ohio, one of the nation's best teams at generating steals, had 13 against UNC.
"They just do a great job of getting into the passing lanes," said Barnes, who finished with 12 points. "I can't necessarily say one specific person, but, I mean, everybody. They're out there denying."
UNC held a significant size advantage but struggled to work the ball into the interior. When they did, though, the Tar Heels often had success.
Senior forward Tyler Zeller led UNC with 20 points and a career-high 22 rebounds, and he became the first player since former Wake Forest standout Tim Duncan to have at least 20 points and 20 rebounds in an NCAA Tournament game. The Heels outscored Ohio 28-20 in the paint and 14-4 off of second-chance points.
But the Bobcats, led by 26 points from Offutt, took advantage of turnovers and outscored UNC 26-11 in points off of turnovers.
The final minutes of regulation were tense and hectic, and overall the score was tied six times, the same number of times the lead changed.
White, in his first collegiate start, finished with six assists and no turnovers.
"I was ready for it," he said. "I felt calm. I was at peace."
"Probably the ugliest win I've ever been a part of," Bullock said. "But we won the game, and hopefully we'll do better on Sunday."