ST. LOUIS -- Is this where I'm supposed to congratulate North Carolina? For being tough, resilient, something esoteric and unprovable but something that sounds good when a team finds itself in overtime and wins?
Sorry. Can't do it. Not after that Sweet 16 game Friday night, because there wasn't a damn thing impressive about No. 1-seeded North Carolina in its 73-65 victory against 13th-seeded Ohio.
Well, OK, that's not fair. UNC center Tyler Zeller was impressive. He had 20 points and 22 rebounds, and never mind that he should have that sort of monster double-double against a frontcourt as short, skinny and psyched out as Ohio's. If everyone did what everyone was supposed to do Friday night, North Carolina would've won by 25. So Zeller gets credit for doing what he was supposed to do. Not everyone on his team did.
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But Reggie Bullock gets credit, too. He had 17 points and 10 rebounds. And freshman Stilman White gets some, too, for replacing future NBA point guard (and currently injured UNC point guard) Kendall Marshall and not letting the moment shrink him like the moment shrunk so many others on his team. White scored just two points, but he had six assists and zero turnovers. He's not the reason the Tar Heels won -- but they nearly lost a game they couldn't lose. And that wasn't Stilman White's fault.
Whose fault was it? Well, let's give Ohio some credit first. The Bobcats trailed 14-4, then 26-11. They were down 10 early in the second half, but they wouldn't go away. Ohio made eight of 13 shots from 3-point range in the second half, when Walter Offutt put the Bobcats on his back with 19 of his 26 points. Star player D.J. Cooper had the worst game of his career, a 3 for 20 extravaganza of misses. He was 1 of 10 on 3-pointers. He had four turnovers. Had he been any good at all -- or simply not dreadful -- Ohio probably wins this game.
As it is, Ohio almost won at the end of regulation when Cooper's 40-footer floated toward the basket, hitting the glass and the rim before deciding this just wasn't going to be Ohio's night.
But it wasn't North Carolina's night, either. Get that straight. Someone somewhere may well congratulate the Tar Heels for winning a game they couldn't lose, but not me. In the history of the NCAA tournament, teams seeded No. 1 have never lost to teams seeded 12th or worst. Any idea how many times that sort of matchup has happened?
Friday night was the 134th time.
Going into this game, No. 1 seeds like North Carolina were 133-0 against low-seeded teams like Ohio. Is this where I congratulate the Tar Heels for making it 134-0?
No. This is where I congratulate Ohio for making a game of something that had no business being a game. North Carolina outrebounded Ohio 63-30. Have you ever seen one college team outrebound another by 33? I haven't. Hope I never do again, either, because it's not fun to watch. Without Marshall to run the offense, North Carolina's best play was a missed free throw -- the Tar Heels accommodated, going just 14 of 24 from the line -- and then having the 7-foot Zeller or 6-11 John Henson reach over the shorter, skinner, psyched-out Ohio frontcourt to bat the long offensive rebound to a teammate on the perimeter.
Watching North Carolina play Ohio was like watching a high school senior pick on a 7-year-old. Only in this case the 7-year-old refused to cry, and kept coming back for more. Why? Because the Bobcats are as intensely tough as their coach, John Groce. Because Offutt got hot. Because Cooper stayed fearless. Because Nick Kellogg can really shoot the ball.
And because North Carolina deserved to lose.
Harrison Barnes was terrible, and worse than terrible he was selfish. He is said to be an NBA talent, and I'll tell you this: Harrison Barnes has a talent for taking NBA shots. Spinning, fading jumpers from 19 feet? He can shoot those. Make them? Well, no. He can't make them. Not Friday, anyway, when he was guarded by non-NBA defenders who were four or five inches smaller, and 25 to 35 pounds lighter. This was the kind of game Barnes should have had his way -- as Tyler Zeller had his way -- but Barnes couldn't get out of his own way.
Not for lack of effort, though. Barnes shot and shot and shot some more. He took 16 shots all told, most of them difficult, and made three. He was two of nine on 3-pointers, air-balling one of them. He had five turnovers, the worst one in the final seconds of regulation when he decided -- unless Roy Williams decided for him, which would be embarrassing for ol' Roy -- to go one-on-one with the season on the line. It didn't work, of course, and nearly backfired all the way. With the ball and a tie score in the final seconds, the definition of a no-lose proposition, Barnes nearly lost it. He went up for a shot with three seconds left, had it knocked from his hands, and could only watch as Cooper went the other way before just missing that 40-footer.
It wasn't only Barnes. Henson was quiet with 14 points and 10 rebounds, air-balling a free throw during his 2-for-6 quagmire from the line. He turned it over three times. He wasn't terrible, but he wasn't good. Not against that itty bitty Ohio frontcourt.
P.J. Hairston? Justin Watts? James Michael McAdoo? They combined for as many turnovers (eight) as points. Which means the UNC bench, with multiple McDonald's All-Americans, was outplayed by an Ohio bench with multiple MAC reserves.
Roy Williams? He was outcoached by John Groce.
North Carolina won, and the NCAA tournament is all about surviving and advancing. Point conceded. And maybe Kendall Marshall returns on Sunday and leads the Tar Heels to the Midwest Regional title and a spot in the Final Four. Maybe this UNC team wins the national championship. It could happen, because this team has that kind of ability.
Maybe next time I'll see it. I didn't see it Friday night, and I'm not here to tell you lies.