ST. LOUIS - North Carolina found itself on the brink Friday night in its Midwest Regional semifinal clash with No. 13 seed Ohio, trailing by as many as four down the stretch, but UNC found within itself just enough heart and resolve - and made just enough shots - to claim a 73-65 victory over the Bobcats to move into Sunday's Regional final.
"Obviously we're extremely pleased," UNC head coach Roy Williams said. "We feel lucky, but we did make some plays down the stretch and I was very proud of our guys. We feel like we were in a battle. I feel like I've been in a battle. Our players feel like that.
"But congratulate Ohio. They did some really good things, eight out of 13 in the second half from 3‑point line, that was big for them to say the least. We tried to guard the three and didn't do as good a job of it as we would like, but we made enough plays."
"It's an ugly win, but sometimes you've got to win that way," said senior big man Tyler Zeller, who led the way for UNC with 20 points and 22 rebounds. "Sometimes you've got to win ugly, but we're still playing. We're going to have to play a lot better on Sunday to move on, but at least we're still playing."
"We're playing Sunday, and that's all that matters," added John Henson, who also posted a double-double with 14 points and 10 boards. "It feels great. This is what it's all about in March Madness. We're relieved. It was a tough game for us. It's something that we didn't want to win like this, but a win is a win, and we're happy to be moving on."
UNC was playing for the first time all season without point guard standout Kendall Marshall, who is still nursing a fractured right wrist. But with freshman Stilman White at the helm starting his first career college game, the Tar Heels got off to a fast start.
Carolina looked like it was going to run away with the game as the Tar Heels came out and took control early in building a commanding 26-11 lead midway through the first half, with Zeller scoring 10 of the points. The ACC Player of the Year finished the opening 20 minutes with 11 points and nine rebounds.
But Ohio showed that it hadn't come this far to completely melt down, as the Bobcats put together an 11-0 run - aided by UNC turnovers and questionable shot selection - to pull within 26-22 in the final 90 seconds of the half.
Leading 29-22 at halftime, UNC briefly allowed Ohio to pull within four before the Tar Heels jumped back ahead 35-25 in the opening two minutes of the second half, with White getting a steal that resulted in another basket in the paint by Zeller.
But then the Bobcats rallied again, connecting on three 3-pointers in succession to pull back within one at 37-36 with 15 minutes to play. Ohio had five different shot opportunities to take the lead around this stretch, but none of the shots fell before Reggie Bullock nailed a three to give UNC a 42-38 advantage around the 11:20 mark.
Bullock, who scored 17 points, was motivated by an Ohio coach's comment before the game that UNC couldn't win without Marshall. Bullock elevated his level of play in the second half and made several key shots for the Tar Heels.
"I'm glad it (the comment about Marshall) fired Reggie up, because he won the game for us," said Henson. "That's the whole world, saying you can't win without Kendall. He's a great player and he's our team. It was great for us to see that we can win without him, even though it was ugly."
The Bobcats again cut it to one after Bullock's three-pointer before UNC got two more baskets, including a James McAdoo steal and dunk, to jump back ahead 46-41.
Again Ohio answered, as Nick Kellogg, son of former Ohio State star and CBS analyst Clark Kellogg, made a 3-pointer to give the Bobcats a 47-46 lead with under 8:30 on the clock.
"We heard about how well they (Ohio) were shooting the threes right now. I was a little amazed at how many they hit in a row, but it's something that it is what they're known for, and they got on a roll," said Zeller. "We came out in the second half and had a quick run, but they (Ohio) did a great job of battling back."
UNC seemed for a spell to get away from what it had done to build its early lead - working the ball inside - which helped Ohio take it right down to the wire.
"You've got to give Ohio a lot of credit," Zeller said. "They did a good job of packing it in (the paint) and trying to make us shoot from the outside, and we kind of fell into it a little bit. But at the same time, you've got to give them credit for changing their gameplan and forcing us to do that."
Bullock hit a three-pointer for UNC to give the Tar Heels a 51-47 lead, and then Henson made a turn-around baseline jumper to make it a 53-50 lead, but Ohio promptly scored seven straight points - climaxed by a D.J. Cooper driving foul and three-point play - to lead 57-53 heading into the final minutes.
Ohio had a chance to stretch its lead even more at this point following a turnover of Zeller, but Henson saved the day with arguably his most important single play so far as a Tar Heel, blocking a Bobcats transition layup attempt when the basket could have given Ohio a six-point lead.
Had Henson not blocked that shot, UNC may very well be heading home.
"It (the blocked shot) is something that we needed, and I'm glad I got it. It was a big play for us. They were up four, and if he (the Ohio player) had made that layup it would have been tough to come back. I'm just glad I got that block," Henson said. "It might have (saved the season), but at the time I was just worried about getting a score on the other end (after the block)."
"I was very thankful for that (Henson's block), because unfortunately I was the one who threw it away. He did a great job. We all know his shot blocking ability is very good, and thankfully he was able to go get it," said Zeller.
Although Harrison Barnes had arguably his worst game as a Tar Heel - making just three of 16 shots on the night and finishing with 12 points - the sophomore made nine of those points in the final few minutes of regulation and overtime.
After sinking one free throw Barnes missed the second but tipped the ball outside for a key offensive rebound. The ball was soon back in his hands, and he nailed a clutch three-pointer to tie the game at 57-57.
The teams traded baskets for a minute or so, with Zeller scoring to give UNC a 60-59 lead with under two minutes to play, and Ohio's Ivo Baltic connecting on a turn-around over Henson to give Ohio a 61-60 lead in the final minute.
UNC desperately needed a big shot and they got it courtesy of Bullock, who made the fourth of five three-pointers on the night with 35.8 seconds left, giving the Tar Heels a two-point lead.
"He (Bullock) hit some big shots for us. He saved us, to say the least. It was something that was very fortunate for us," said Henson.
"I was just thinking right when I caught the ball, I heard my whole bench, from managers to everybody, say, 'Shoot!' And right then, I just pulled the trigger and I seen it go in. And I just was like, I was just thinking to myself, it's like my time to perform. And it was a big shot for our team and all my teammates just believing in me to make those shots," added Bullock.
If Carolina fans thought the issue was settled after Bullock's late three-pointer, Ohio didn't. Walter Offutt scored while getting fouled at the 25 second mark, tying the game yet again and setting the stage for a potentially historic free throw for the Bobcats.
Fortunately for UNC, Offutt missed. The Tar Heels were unable to score on their final possession of regulation and the game went into overtime tied at 63 apiece, but not before Ohio threw up a desperation heave at the buzzer that almost went in.
"I was behind him (Ohio's player) on the halfcourt shot). I was nervous. I knew it was going to be close - it was at least going to hit the rim - and thankfully it didn't go in," said Zeller.
Carolina was finally able to assume strategic control in the overtime period following Bullock's fifth three-ball - which gave UNC a 66-63 lead - and a jumper by Barnes, which extended UNC's lead to five at 68-63.
Ohio's remarkable shooting spree to put itself in position to win in regulation withered away with the overtime clock, as the Bobcats scored just two points in the overtime period.
Before long, UNC found itself salting away the game at the free throw line.
"I think we made some shots (in overtime) and they missed some. It was the only difference," said Zeller. "Definitely not (we didn't take Ohio lightly). I think once you're in the Sweet Sixteen, you've got to be able to come out and play every game. I think they did a great job. Everybody has got to be able to step up. I mean, we lost a fantastic point guard and player, so everybody has got to make a few extra plays.
Barnes made three free throws in the final 1:01, while White scored his only two points - the final two points of the game - on a pair of charity shots.
Carolina won despite throwing away 24 turnovers and shooting just 40 percent from the floor.
"Twenty-four turnovers (for the game) ... it's the first time this season we've had that many. I think obviously without Kendall, we've got to get used to it. We've got to get better. You can't have 24 turnovers. It's something that's inexcusable," said Zeller.
Coach Williams used a boxing reference to describe his team's emotions after such a draining victory.
"The 'Thrilla in Manila' (in 1975 between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali), I'm older than most of you guys, but at the end of that battle, they were spent. I mean, we usually jump around, and I jump around, and we have a little mosh pit. In the locker room, I was afraid I would fricking pass out."
"I told them (the UNC players), I said, 'We can't do that, guys. Come on up here. Let's just hug a little bit.' But we're in the Elite 8 and we have got to make sure that our kids feel good about it. So I want us to feel good about it."